Review: 'Rebel in the Rye' biopic would've made Salinger cringe

Nicholas Hoult

Nicholas Hoult Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa, Courtesy of IFC Films

It’s hard to imagine J.D. Salinger would have wanted this movie to be made.

The late literary titan was as famous for his reclusiveness as for his writing. And given the author’s standout treatise on phonies, perhaps the only thing worse than an expository biopic would be a superficial melodrama loosely based in reality. Rebel in the Rye certainly falls into the latter category.

The film adopts a nonlinear narrative, opening with the author’s stint in a mental hospital following World War II. His hands are shaky. He can’t write. Via voiceover, Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) laments that Holden Caulfield is dead.

The movie flashes back to Salinger’s carefree partying days and takes us through a series of formative events that shape both the obstinate young man and the novel to come. His dad wants him to be in the meat business; he wants to be a writer. There’s a minor clash before Salinger’s mother decides to settle the matter, and Jerry heads off to Columbia to study writing under Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey).

He deals with rejection. He goes to war. He gets published in the New Yorker. At every beat, Rebel in the Rye skims along at surface level, zipping through years without any illumination and lingering too long on precise “Eureka!” moments that are so on-the-nose it’s both comical and disdainful of the author’s talent. It’s as if Salinger’s continual roadblocks were only overcome by chance events, which Salinger then directly transcribed.

This could just be an issue with the “writer movie” by default; a filmic narrative demands something more dramatic than the tedium inherent in real-world writing. The filmmakers may have hoped a figure as complex as Salinger would allow them to overcome said limitation. Instead, they wound up steamrolling all of the author’s nuance for a hero theme that is out of place and at odds with real life.

Rebel in the Rye positions Salinger as strictly a misunderstood genius, painting his human flaws as brilliance others are unable to comprehend. Hoult is a solid actor, so he can hold some ground—but the rosiness translates to a blasé character study, and the movie as a whole feels like one big puff piece. Had they focused more on the man and less on The Catcher in the Rye, they might have had something, anything, worth watching.

Salinger fans will get nothing out of the movie, and newcomers will learn little that a cursory Wikipedia glance couldn’t have given them in a fraction of the time. Rebel in the Rye tries too hard and consistently falls short, offering a conventional record of a writer who was anything but.

Rebel in the Rye
Director: Danny Strong
Starring: Sarah Paulson, Zoey Deutch, Nicholas Hoult
Rated: PG-13
Theater: Opens Friday, Lagoon Cinema