If there were an entry in the dictionary for “cult author,” the picture of J.D. Salinger should by rights be the chosen illustration. In case you are seeking to become a cult author yourself, I suggest the following steps: 1) Write one really good book, 2) featuring a disaffected yet attractive adolescent, then 3) disappear from public life and publish no more.
Playing hard to get often makes people want to know you even more, and that was certainly the case with Salinger. Because he has such a strong cult following, and there is such a scarcity of information about him, there exists a large contingent of individuals who are eager to spend their money on anything related to Salinger. It’s like the old saw that in Boston you could sell horseshit if you slapped a Celtics logo on it, except that in this case the commodity is a mediocre film that aims to capitalize on Salinger’s aura.
Given this setup, perhaps it is not surprising that Danny Strong, who wrote and directed the Salinger biopic Rebel in the Rye, seems to assume that his film doesn’t have to work very hard to justify the audience’s ticket dollars. If a large number of people will go to see a film just because of its association with Salinger, after all, then it really doesn’t matter if the film is any good. Or it doesn’t matter in terms of selling tickets, anyway, at least not for the first weekend (Rebel in the Rye came in second last weekend, after It, for per-screen average sales, although it’s worth noting that it opened in only four theatres).
In truth, Rebel in the Rye is not so much terrible as it is thoroughly mediocre, and thus exactly the sort of thing that Salinger and his most famous fictional creation would have hated. Rather than attempting to shed any light on what was unique about Salinger (Nicholas Hoult, looking good and doing the best he can with a script that doesn’t give him much to work with) and his writing, Rebel in the Rye is content to skate along the surface, presenting a series of not-very-illuminating enactments of episodes from Salinger’s life. These include troubles with his father (Victor Garber), romantic episodes (including a relationship with Eugene O’Neill’s daughter Oona, played by Zoey Deutsch), military service, and his relationships with mentor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey) and literary agent Dorothy Olding (Sarah Paulson). The problem is that these scenes are all very generic—a portrait of the author as a privileged yet angry young man—and they don’t even try to address the question of what made Salinger tick.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that were Rebel in the Rye purporting to be nothing more than a generic portrait of a generic mid-century author, it wouldn’t be half bad. Most of the acting is good, as is the period detail, and Strong does a good job disguising what must have been a fairly small budget. Like most films about authors, it has its share of silly scenes and literary clichés, but it’s no more surprising to hear the familiar words of an author spoken in voiceover in a literary biopic than it is to see the coach making an inspirational speech before the big game in a sports film.
The bottom line, however, is that Rebel in the Rye is a Salinger biopic, and that’s how it must be judged. One wonders if Strong’s ears were burning when he wrote the lines with which Hoult’s Salinger refuses to make changes in Catcher in the Rye: “I won’t do it. I won’t change a word! Holden would not approve!” Because the truth is that Holden would not approve of this mediocre biopic, and neither would his creator, J.D. Salinger. | Sarah Boslaugh