Danny Strong’s J.D. Salinger biopic, Rebel in the Rye, is such a traditional portrait of a young writer that it would probably infuriate its subject to no end. And yet, for the rest of us, this is a key factor in the picture’s triumph. Rebel in the Rye’s greatest accomplishment is that it humanizes a man who is as mythic as perhaps any other writer in history.
We open on Salinger a bloodied mess near a carousel in Central Park. Voiceover gives us our first taste of the 1930s New York sophisticate sneer Nicholas Hoult puts on. The immortal opening lines of Salinger’s most famous work — The Catcher in the Rye — set the scene for us as we zoom in on the central figure.
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
Then we flash back. It’s Salinger not only pre-success but pre any real direction. He’s at the Stork Club asking his friend why they continue to go there when the chances of getting laid are so slim. Then he sees Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), the daughter of famed playwright Eugene O’Neill and learns she likes writers. Suddenly, his struggle to make it as a short story author holds a kind of glamour it had not previously possessed. We cut to all of the usual trappings: montage of crumpled pages, rejection letters, pacing, and so on. And through this combination of life and work and work as life, we begin to get the whole picture of the man behind Holden Caulfield, the man who *was* Holden Caulfield.
It’s a meaty role for Hoult and he rises to the challenge, inspiring sympathy and exasperation in equal measure. He allows us to see what so captivated Salinger’s and followers, but even more intimately, what alienated nearly everyone in his personal life. The little details revealed turn up worlds of insight into one of American literature’s most complicated figures. Who knew that Charlie Chaplin would figure into this story? (Admittedly, probably a lot of superfans.) And while anyone who has taken high school English classes would wager a guess that Catcher is at least somewhat autobiographical, seeing the parallel creation of Salinger, the writer and icon, with his creation of Holden is downright fascinating.
Meanwhile, Kevin Spacey is delightful as Whit Burnett, a professor-cum-mentor who defines the central struggle of Salinger’s life within seconds of meeting him, it goes something like “you think that you’re the cleverest boy in the room and everyone around you is too dumb to realize it.” Between Burnett and Dorothy Olding (the wonderful Sarah Paulson), Salinger’s long-suffering agent, we get rational context around the swirling angst that is Salinger’s world view.
The biopic isn’t as revolutionary as Salinger’s writing was, but Rebel in the Rye is an effective and entertaining portrait of the man who inspired countless imitators.