Rebel in the Rye (2017)

  • Time: 106 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama
  • Director: Danny Strong
  • Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Zoey Deutch, Kevin Spacey, Sarah Paulson


The life of celebrated but reclusive author, J.D. Salinger, who gained worldwide fame with the publication of his novel, “The Catcher in the Rye”.

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  • “You act out at authority figures…because you’re emotionally repressed at home. You also think you’re the cleverest boy that ever walked the planet, and no one recognises what a genius you are. It’s pretty typical stuff.” So goes the dime-store psychology of Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey) of J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult), and pretty typical stuff is exactly what one gets in writer-director Danny Strong’s biopic of one of the most celebrated and mystique-shrouded literary icons in history.

    Salinger, of course, is as famous for writing The Catcher in the Rye, that controversial bible of adolescent angst and alienation, as for his willful decision to seal himself away from the attention and scrutiny wrought by his writing. Rebel in the Rye, based partly on Kenneth Slawenski’s biography J.D. Salinger: A Life, begins in 1939 with Salinger as a young man struggling to find a place in the world. He aims to make a career out of being a short story writer, a decision supported by his mother (Hope Davis) but disapproved of by his father (Victor Garber), who tells him that he’ll never amount to anything.

    Enrolling himself in Columbia University to study creative writing, Salinger encounters Burnett, a lecturer at the school who also happens to be the editor of Story magazine and soon to be his mentor. Your voice is what makes the story unique, Burnett advises, but when that voice overwhelms the story, then it becomes an expression of the ego rather than of the reader’s emotional experience. Yet as much as Burnett inspires Salinger to refine his writing, he also warns that a writer’s life is one of rejection so is Salinger prepared to devote his life to telling stories knowing that he may get nothing in return?

    Burnett also encourages Salinger to get out of his comfort zone of short stories and develop Holden Caulfield into a full novel, which Salinger attempts to do in fits and starts in between romancing Oona O’Neill (the lovely but underused Zoey Deutch) and serving in World War II, where he carried chapters of his soon-to-be masterwork in his backpack through the trenches. Like many who survived its horrors, Salinger was left traumatised by the war and suffered a severe case of writer’s block before finally completing his novel and achieving literary success. Strong duly but briefly charts the milestones of Salinger’s life, zipping through his two failed marriages, hinting at his sexual attraction to teenage girls, sharing his squabbles with publishers, but somehow, whether due to an already existing failing in the screenplay or overpruning in the editing room, doesn’t do much more than shallowly connect the dots.

    Though one can understand Strong’s attempt to cram as much of Salinger’s life as possible within the film’s 105-minute running time, he may have been wiser to narrow his focus on one or two aspects, such as the relationships Salinger had with Burnett and his ever-patient agent Dorothy Olding, especially since Spacey and Sarah Paulson, who plays Olding, are both excellent in the film and Hoult seems most attuned to Salinger when sharing scenes with them.

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