Given how ferociously J.D. Salinger guarded his privacy, he likely would have objected to being the subject of any biopic, no matter how intelligent and respectful its portrait of him might be. There’s a special cruelty, though, in consigning Salinger—an author whose most famous character incessantly rails against phoniness—to the superficial cliché factory that is Rebel In The Rye. This is the kind of hackwork that signifies writer’s block by having the writer angrily hurl his pencil across the room in frustration, even though he’s sitting at a typewriter. It’s the sort of overbaked melodrama in which the future legend’s stern father asks him “What makes you think you have anything to say to people?” There’s painfully dumb voiceover narration (“Through the course of my fascinatingly dull life, I’ve always found fiction so much more truthful than reality—and, yes, I’m aware of the irony”); there’s a montage of rejection letters; there’s “real life” dialogue that’s destined to turn up in the author’s work, ostensibly demonstrating how he got his ideas. Even the title is laughable. Rebel In The Rye? Coming soon: The Maverick Also Rises.
By the standards of literary giants, Salinger (played here as a young man by Nicholas Hoult) did lead an eventful early life, though Rebel arduously avoids any hint of complexity. After dropping out of NYU, he enrolled at Columbia, where Story magazine editor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey) became his mentor and first champion. Their turbulent relationship should be the heart of the movie, but both men are conceived so shallowly—Salinger struggling to comprehend elemental notions of content vs. form; Burnett seemingly clairvoyant about Holden Caulfield’s potential as an iconic character—that the inevitable rift between them feels contrived. Salinger’s parallel pursuit of famed debutante Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), who would ultimately dump him to marry the much older Charlie Chaplin (one of the era’s major scandals), plays more like an adaptation of a Trivial Pursuit question than like a romance. As for World War II, which would shape much of Salinger’s writing, forget it. He stormed Utah Beach on D-Day and helped to liberate a Nazi concentration camp, but Rebel In The Rye’s brief wartime interludes, shot in shallow focus, practically scream, “Sorry, we didn’t even remotely have the budget for this.”
Not that more money would have helped much. Hoult doesn’t embarrass himself—Salinger’s silently horrified reaction when a publisher asks whether Holden Caulfield is meant to be crazy hits home, for example—but he too often comes across like a generic wiseacre who’s also occasionally too sensitive for this world. Still, Rebel’s main problem is that Danny “that nerdy kid on the margins of Sunnydale High” Strong (who’s also the co-creator of Empire, among other credits; this is his first film as both writer and director) doesn’t trust viewers to grasp anything that doesn’t fall directly into their laps after first clonking them on the head. Knowing that Salinger published nothing whatsoever after 1965, despite reportedly continuing to write fiction up until his death in 2010, Strong has Salinger’s literary agent (Sarah Paulson) tell him “publishing is everything” no fewer than three times, just to make sure that we understand what he was rebelling against. That’s not subtle foreshadowing; it’s hamfisted spoon-feeding. Other cringeworthy moments include Salinger idly asking a stranger at Central Park where the ducks go when the lake freezes over in the winter, which is meant to elicit a knowing nod from anyone who read The Catcher In The Rye in high school (i.e., everyone). Most great-author biopics are just faintly dull and unnecessary. Rebel In The Rye, true to its ridiculous title, is proudly, even aggressively hackneyed.