A postscript at the end of “Rebel in the Rye” states that legendary “Catcher in the Rye” author J.D. Salinger’s seclusion and refusal to publish only made him more famous and revered. Raising the curtain on that mystery is like pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz. Ultimately, what’s revealed in the new biopic of young Salinger, written and directed by Danny Strong, doesn’t live up to the power of the mystery around the man itself.
Strong draws on Kenneth Slawenski’s biography, “J.D. Salinger: A Life,” to provide the details about what shaped the young writer in the early 1940s. British actor Nicholas Hoult plays smart-mouthed Jerry Salinger, who’s bad at school, chases women and lives to write, despite the protests of his father (Victor Garber). Kevin Spacey plays Whit Burnett, Jerry’s writing professor at Columbia, and their connection proves the story’s central relationship. One of the main questions posed by the film is “why write?” It’s a question Whit demands of Jerry, but it’s almost rhetorical. In the form of writing that Whit teaches and Jerry adopts, the motivation to write is simply the writing. Write because you must, because you can’t stand not to write.
This approach to writing comes into sharp focus in the back half of the film, after Jerry’s chased every girl and literary magazine out of his league. After a bleak stint in the war, ravaged by PTSD, he discovers meditation and applies its tenets to eliminate distractions. His monk-like approach to work transforms his writing into an almost religious experience, and he retreats to New Hampshire, eventually becoming a recluse and ceasing to publish altogether.
That emphasis on writing for writing’s sake and his obsessive sacred pursuit is fascinating and enigmatic. A philosophical, deep dive into this would have been truly original and striking. But Strong has laid out all-too-easy answers, offering war trauma and PTSD, romantic rejection and an aversion to fame for the reasons that Jerry escapes to the woods.
Hoult is such a strong actor that he capably commands the screen and holds attention, even when “Rebel in the Rye” is a screenplay desperately in need of focus. We’re whisked back and forth in time with unnecessary flashbacks, and while the first half of the film is a romp, we’re quickly dashed through the horrors of war in order to watch the rest of the story unfold. The film often feels like it doesn’t know where to tell you to look, or overexplains in a reductive manner. It ends with a clunk, because ultimately, when the curtain is pulled back on the Wizard, isn’t it always a bit of a letdown?