MOVIE REVIEW: Rebel in the Rye




As it has been outlined on this website before on films like Get On Up, biographical films have their formulas and rules.  In addressing the origins and rise to fame of reclusive author J.D. Salinger, Rebel in the Rye faces the familiar dramatization tightrope walk between sugarcoated hero worship and biting character study.  The creative choices made by Danny Strong, in his debut directorial effort, swirl between an engaging warm hug and an indifferent cold shoulder.

The “Jerry” Salinger we meet in 1939, played by Nicholas Hoult, is an ashamed half-Jew and promising talent that has dropped out of two colleges already, much to the chagrin of his Manhattanite meat distribution magnate father (Victor Garber, with pitch-perfect line readings of badly blunt dialogue) who still calls him “Sonny.”  Searching for an inspiring purpose, he finds two.  One is the chased skirt of debutante Oona O’Neill (and underused Zooey Deutch) that he falls head-over-heels for, and the other is the punchy mentorship of Columbia University professor and Story magazine founder/editor Whit Burnett, played with spirited gusto by the incomparable Kevin Spacey.

After the obsessive development of his craft following repeated rejection to finally break through with published short stories in Story and the creme-de-la-creme level of The New Yorker, Salinger receives the urging encouragement from Burnett to turn the Holden Caulfield character into a novel.  The draft of World War II brings out more creative release as Salinger survives the meat grinder of Utah Beach and the European theater.  Returning home shell-shocked and changed, an education in Zen Buddhism quiets the demons enough for restarting his writing success with The New Yorker.  Guided by his agent Dorothy Olding (Sarah Paulson), the Great American Novel arrives in 1951 and changes everything for everyone.

The production values of Rebel in the Rye have positive qualities to appreciate.  The costume design and location work are excellently appointed.  Bear McCreary’s poignant score provides a proper tone of scope and importance.  Between this and 10 Cloverfield Lane, McCreary deserves to graduate to larger film audiences after killing it in television for years.  Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau applies the proper gloss to shine the Greatest Generation era of incandescent lights and cigarette smoke.

The flaws for Danny Strong’s film come in the places that required the removal of gloss, particularly the omissions and selective stances to present the prickly Salinger history.  Every biographical film faces the challenge of what and where to apply the dramatic license to condense, mollify, or speculate for entertainment gain.  Some choices in that department, including those made in this film, can come across more as irresponsible than fair, tidy, or smart.  Based on Kenneth Slawensk’s non-fiction tome J.D. Salinger: A Life, many personal flaws, like his disparaging infidelity as a parent or husband, are saccharinely glazed over or entirely ignored.  A stiffer drink of honesty to seek out would be Shane Salerno’s 2013 documentary Salinger, available, like so many other stellar documentaries, on Netflix.

Circling back to a closing positive, Rebel in the Rye is the most complete and mature performance of Nicholas Hoult’s young career.  Donning brown contact lenses and closing his normally agape expression for some serious mental hurdles, the soon-to-be-28-year-old exhibits true mettle after mild glimpses of such potential in recent films like Sand Castle and Equals.  Riffing with Kevin Spacey will improve any actor, and the Oscar winner’s presence elevates the vigor of this film.  He’s a hoot, even in shaggy professor mode under an unsightly toupee.  

Continuing to take on meaty roles such as this instead of side characters in blockbusters will do Nicholas Hoult good.  Seeing this level of expressive talent in Hoult raises the anticipation to see him portray Nikola Tesla in The Current War side-by-side with two performance titans in Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon this fall.  That will be a hell of a test and he’s earned that shot.

LESSON #1: THE IMPORTANCE OF A CREATIVE OUTLET-- Working for his father wasn’t going to fulfill Salinger.  Feigning interest in other careers wasn' going to satiate the voice that needed to get out and deserved to be shared.  I fully subscribe that folks need a creative outlet in their life, in any shape or form, as a calming means of personal expression.  You’re reading mine.  Salinger needed to overcome PTSD and speak for himself without the forethought that it would reach generations to come.

LESSON #2: GETTING PUBLISHED MATTERS-- This movie will have you believe that for a writer to be of consequence, they need to be published.  It was the biggest stamp of approval that mattered to the author.  Stepping back, that depends on what level of remembrance and impact one is striving for.  Plenty produce whatever their creative outlet is for no audience but themselves.  Audience size and statistics are not a measures of quality and quality trumps all.  I’d like to think good writing is good writing, no matter the platform from zero to billions.