Alongside the strange case of the great-painter biopic that isn’t visually arresting is the problem of the great-writer film that traffics in clichés. The latter is the regrettable category for “Rebel in the Rye,” screenwriter-director Danny Strong’s dutiful rundown of the rise of J. D. Salinger from precocious wiseass to storied chronicler of the odd and disaffected — before those qualities in the author, made famous with his anti-hero Holden Caulfield, spelled his retreat from the world.
Taking the cinematic shovel and microscope to the mysteries of creation has already felled countless movies about authors; Strong has company. But it feels particularly awkward to see a much-debated, complicated figure like Salinger (played with alpha obnoxiousness by Nicholas Hoult) treated as a readily moveable mouthpiece in a slick, obvious, big-moments account. Salinger aficionados know exactly what word Holden would use.
At first, we see Salinger at his lowest, a jittery shell of a soldier following World War II, sitting in a sanitarium room trying to write with a shaking hand. The narration serves to send us back to 1939 New York, where we encounter a full-of-himself young urbanite trying to mack on Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch, “Before I Fall”) at the Stork Club. J.D.’s got a cold, dismissive dad (Victor Garber), an encouraging mom (Hope Davis), and a towering belief that his clever writing style will light up the literary world.
He is soon disabused of his overconfidence by his Columbia writing professor Whit Burnett, played by Kevin Spacey as if a little too excited to play anything but a snarling villain. Burnett treats Salinger to the attentive-mentor playbook: break him down (you’re all voice, so what), test his will (writers are mostly failures, do you have what it takes), then publish him with a wink (I always knew you had it, kid). It’s like a hamfisted script within a hamfisted script. What was that word again, Holden?
When The New Yorker shows interest (in the earliest Holden story, “Slight Rebellion off Madison”), Salinger feels validated, but their notes turn him off. The bigger wrench, however, is the attack on Pearl Harbor. He suits up for war, and the early indignity overseas of reading about his ex Oona marrying Charlie Chaplin is quickly superseded by taking part in D-Day, seeing friends die, and encountering the concentration camps.
Back home, shaken yet determined, the stories he kept working on throughout the war become “The Catcher in the Rye.” But the fame that comes with its publication — including weird misfits in red hunting caps showing up at his doorstep clutching books — leads him to shun the public eye and retreat to a secluded house in New Hampshire for the rest of his life.
You may wish for the same avoidance from any more movies about writers after “Rebel in the Rye.” It’s tempting to wonder how Strong — who, as a screenwriter, so expertly distilled a pair of wild and woolly presidential campaigns into the Emmy-winning docudramas “Recount” and “Game Change” — honestly thought he could get away with his graceless, tell-not-show dramatic tactics. Three separate coffeehouse scenes with Hoult and Spacey take place across many years, but are filmed so perfunctorily as to only suggest a day’s shooting.
Then there’s all the hackneyed renderings of inspiration, in which flashes from everyday life are routinely followed by shots of cigarette-smoking Hoult tapping away at the typewriter as ready-made prose is narrated for us so we can marry the life to the work. (“Hey, that’s from ‘Bananafish!'”) It all turns the enigmatic poetry of art-imitates-life into the equivalent of a toy-assembly diagram, or a name-that-reference game.
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Strong, making his directorial debut, is so committed to a flow-chart schedule for his Great Artist narrative that it strips any mystery or wonder out of J.D. Salinger’s punchy, tragic, one-of-a-kind trajectory. At one point, referring to his writing, Salinger is called an “overexplainer.” But Strong’s dialogue is littered with lines that treat us like idiots. “It’s the most prestigious contract in American publishing!” (The New Yorker? Never heard of it.) Then there’s this belabored beaut, which Sarah Paulson, as Salinger’s agent, is saddled with toward the end: “The war made him a better writer, but it really messed him up.” Was that for walk-ins who missed the first hour and a half?
It’s hard to fault performances when they’re little more than the delivery system for an epic spoon-feeding. But Hoult’s sneering preppy countenance simply lacks the melancholy-rebel mystique that made author photos of the real Salinger convey such a mix of world-weary smarts and woundedness. A movie that allowed Hoult to breathe more might have allowed for something strange and insightful.
But “Rebel in the Rye” is the most dispiritingly presentational of biopics, on a tight schedule to hit its marks and compartmentalize its subject’s life.