”Catcher in the Rye” is a seminal work of literature, still selling and popular today. J.D. Salinger is considered a genius, the voice of a generation. When I saw that Rebel in the Rye was about the life of Salinger, I could not resist seeing this film. While I am certain that the movie did not give us every detail of his life, what it did was more important. It inspired me to read more of his work and it provided an insight into the mind of a very secluded writer.
The movie begins with J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) during a stint in the hospital after World War II. It builds the impression of a man struggling with his ability to write and with the violence of the war. At that point, it slips back six years and relates the events leading up to the hospital. We see J.D. or Jerry as his friends call him, a college dropout as he figures out what he wants from life. He and his mother (Hope Davis) convince his stern father (Victor Garber) to allow him to attend a writing course at Columbia despite his father’s desire for his son to work a regular job.
Salinger is sarcastic and too clever for his own good, mocks the lecturer Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey) but ends up seeking out his professor’s assistance with his writing. The movie explores Salinger’s relationships, in particular with Oona O’Neil (Zoey Deutch), daughter of famous playwright Eugene O’Neil. The romance and the conflict fuels Salinger’s writing, including the famous character Holden Caulfield. Ultimately, Oona breaks up with Salinger and marries Charlie Chaplin while Salinger enlists to fight in World War II where, following the advice of Whit Burnett, he continues to write a novel featuring Holden Caulfield.
The rest of the film explores his publication of “Catcher in the Rye” as well as his other short stories with the aid of literary agent, Dorothy Olding (Sarah Paulson). It also focuses on his embrace of Zen Buddhism and his desire to escape the fame of publication. It details his marriage to Claire Douglas (Lucy Boynton) and his departure from the publishing world.
While some parts of the film are romanticized, most of it rings true, especially if you have read any part of the famous novel or have heard of J.D. Salinger. While it does not provide us with every detail of the writer’s life, what it does do is provide insight into his writing, his relationship with his family, his lovers, and how fighting in the war affected him. While the movie uses a wide brush to touch upon those elements, it does an excellent job of relating those high points. In addition, it decidedly helps explore what writing meant to Salinger and why he eventually left the world of publication, writing only for his own pleasure. Incidentally, if you are a writer, you will discover the film resonates with you as it did for me, every word about writing and publication ringing so true. Even though the movie is set primarily in the forties, those truths are still true in today’s publishing industry. While it might appear to give the impression of the tortured artist, much of what I experienced felt more as though it tapped into what it means to be a writer and the eternal question: Do I write for myself or do I write for the publisher?
The cinematography manages to capture the essence of the period. Both the dress and the music is fitting. While the film manages to capture the horror of the war, it does not get too graphic but gives just enough details for you to understand what Salinger experienced during that time. As the dialogue says at one point, “This book is what allowed me to live through the war.”
The actors in this film are exceptionally talented and they do an excellent job with their roles. Nicholas Hoult was by turns both humorous and tortured, just enough to give us a glimpse of the personality behind the writer. He was able to capture Salinger’s desire for perfection as well as his unwillingness to change his work. While it could have been seen as clichéd, I found his performance rang true to the man. Kevin Spacey was immersed in his role as Whit Burnett, his usual incredible self, showing Burnett as instrumental to Salinger’s development while his portrayal of the man’s alcoholism fit with the character’s stifled dreams of publishing. Sarah Paulson was warm and graceful as Dorothy Olding. I was completely sold on her character as a literary agent, seeing bits of agents I’ve met in her portrayal. The women of Salinger’s life, both Claire Douglas and Oona O’Neil are played to perfection, Lucy Boynton and Zoey Deutch giving us believable characters.
While there was little to detract from the story for me, there were some small details that were hazy. One of which is Salinger’s first wife, Sylvia Welter. The film introduces her with little explanation of how the two met and she is quickly cast off once Salinger returns to New York. While the pair were not married long, it did leave me with questions about the character and more details would have assisted with understanding the relationship. In addition, I wanted more about his time after the war. He was an interrogator of German soldiers prior to his hospitalization, and I think some of those details would have added understanding of why he was in the hospital.
If you like movies about historical figures or want to learn more about why J.D. Salinger only wrote one book, you will find this a fascinating look into his life. The cast do a beautiful job with their roles and the parts dealing with Salinger’s writing were flat out inspirational. I left thrilled and wanting to watch this film over and over, yearning to eke every bit of writing wisdom from it.
Rating: 4.5 stars
The world of legendary writer J. D. Salinger is brought vividly to life in this revealing look at the experiences that shaped one of the most renowned, controversial, and enigmatic authors of our time. Set amidst the colorful backdrop of mid-20th century New York City, Rebel in the Rye follows a young Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) as he struggles to find his voice, pursues a love affair with famed socialite Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), and fights on the frontlines of World War II. It’s these experiences that will inform the creation of his masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye, bringing him overnight fame (and notoriety) and leading him to withdraw from the public eye for the rest of his life.
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Zoey Deutch, Kevin Spacey, and Sarah Paulson
Directed by: Danny Strong
Screenplay: Danny Strong
Based on: “J. D. Salinger: A Life” by Kenneth Slawenski