Rebel In The Rye (2017)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Those familiar and fond of J.D. Salinger and "Catcher in the Rye" will be very curious to see Salinger's formative years depicted on the big screen.
Nicholas Hoult's performance is strong, leaving one to begin to wonder why he does not have more prominent lead role opportunities.
The film retains an authentic look and atmosphere, which does a nice job for placing us in the time Salinger was honing his craft.
Has writer/director Danny Strong ever read "Rye", much less Salinger? The tone of this film is that of generic biopic - making one have to wonder if he gets the aura and mystique Salinger lived with after "Rye" became his breakthrough.
This is a paint-by-numbers biopic, unremarkable and boring for stretches of time.
The controversial documentary Salinger from a few years back is problematic, but at least interesting. Reading "Catcher in the Rye" is certainly time better spent.
Though he wrote more than just "Catcher in the Rye", reclusive author J.D. Salinger never could escape the legacy of a book that still sells 250,000 copies worldwide per year. Published in June 1951, "Rye" provided us a 16-year-old teenager for the ages in Holden Caulfield, a character whose observations from a California mental hospital still resonate some seven decades later.
Salinger's novel polarized audiences and has continued to do so all these years since releasing the book at age 32. Debates have raged over symbolism and message - it's a war polemic, it has pro-Communist passages, it's vulgar and inappropriate for teenagers to read, it's powerful and insightful with mature themes worth discussing. "Catcher in the Rye" often lands on banned books list, or can just as easily become required reading in high schools across the country.
For Rebel in the Rye, a story trying to document the author's formative years, one would think that writer/director Danny Strong could give us a sense of the conflict, tumult, and consternation that the author not only poured into his novel, but also wrestled with in order to deliver such lasting prose.
After seeing the film, one has to wonder: Did Strong ever read "Catcher in the Rye?" Is he familiar with J.D. Salinger at all?
The answer is likely, and hopefully, yes, but watching Rebel in the Rye, you have to wonder why everything is tidy, neat, and predictable. Salinger's story is strained through the standard biopic filter and very quickly loses any sense of wonder, creativity, or distinctiveness. If one did not know any better, you could watch Rebel in the Rye and think Salinger is just some screenplay creation, a movie about a young man trying to write a book.
This deserves so much more.
Nicholas Hoult is very good playing Salinger, and he has a nice rapport with a scholarly Kevin Spacey, sweatered up as Whit Burnett, a publisher and writing professor at Columbia University, where Salinger became his prized student. We see the two men clash frequently, sharing in a mutual respect and admiration for one another, yet always teetering on the verge of becoming adversaries.
Burnett often challenged Salinger in their initial time together, before embracing him and opening doors for him with publishing his work in Story, a magazine of short stories and novellas that Burnett published personally. Salinger becomes smitten with Oona (Zoey Deutch), the daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill, who seems to only become interested in J.D., or "Jerry," as he is known by those close to him, after learning of his being published.
The picture Strong paints for us is a man, somewhat entitled, surly and selfish, but the most talented writer Burnett has ever seen. There are multitudes of places for this film to go: blending in themes found in "Rye" and how they pertain to Salinger's personal life would work. More back story on Salinger's upbringing would help, and the author, tortured, showing us true struggle in coming up with his words and ideas might allow us to connect with him on a personal level.
Instead, Rebel in the Rye silences the "Rebel" and takes us, expediently, through his arrival at Columbia University in 1939, through a stint in World War II, his difficulty in acclimating back to a civilian life, and his subsequent marriage to a German woman no one knew about until he brought her home to meet his parents. Strong gives us dollops of history here, scenes largely isolated to themselves, with very few connective threads to keep us engaged with each subsequent chapter of Salinger's life.
Everything feels rudimentary and the dialogue and framing of the story feels lazy. The production design helps keep things afloat, the movie retaining an authenticity in sets and costumes, but much of this story just rings hollow.
Biopics typically employ diversions and exaggerations in telling stories of famous people and incidents for "dramatic effect." Because nothing feels genuine, and we never feel a connection to anything happening here, I cocked my head more than once in questioning whether or not Strong's screenplay, adapted from Kenneth Slawenski's biography "J.D. Salinger: A Life," was even remotely accurate or not.
"Catcher in the Rye" showcases the bold, frank, off-kilter nature of Holden Caulfield and his bristled interactions and decisions. That character sticks with those of us who have read the book because we find a piece of ourselves existing somewhere within this construct. We think we know everything when we are young, we have a freedom and an armor we wear that makes us feel that we can withstand anything.
Nothing even close to that is found here. Salinger is just some talented guy, whose arrogance, naivete, and privilege allows him to stumble into scene after scene, rumble around a bit, and come out seemingly just fine. Strong never writes Salinger in a compelling way, and Rebel in the Rye never finds the voice of a man who found fame, tried it on for awhile, and then became a recluse until his death in 2010 at the age of 91.
Where is that story? How did he get to that place? Sadly, in Danny Strong's new film, the "Rebel" at the heart of his story gets lost out among the "Rye," his unmistakable voice never really heard much, from the film's opening frame to the last.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Zoey Deutch, Kevin Spacey, Sarah Paulson, Brian d'Arcy James, Victor Garber, Hope Davis, Celeste Arias, Bernard White, Lucy Boynton, James Urbaniak, Adam Busch, Jefferson Mays.
Director: Danny Strong
Written by: Danny Strong
Adapted from the book "J.D. Salinger: A Life" by Kenneth Slawenski
Release Date: September 8, 2017