It is ironic that films about trailblazing artists are so often filled with cliches. Reclusive author J.D. Salinger (1919-2010) famously forbade anyone from adapting his 1951 novel “The Catcher in the Rye” for the big screen. Shane Salerno’s ridiculous 2013 documentary “Salinger” — based on Salerno’s even worse book — proved that Salinger was right to keep filmmakers away from him, and from a novel whose iconoclastic take on adolescent rebellion would become, paradoxically, iconic to the point of cliche.
Based on Kenneth Slawenski’s 2010 book “J.D. Salinger: A Life,” the biopic “Rebel in the Rye” is a marginal improvement on Salerno’s documentary. But like that misguided film, writer-director Danny Strong’s feature debut embodies the very phoniness that the author — and his signature character Holden Caulfield — railed against.
Eyes will roll as, early in the film, Salinger (Nicholas Hoult of “Mad Max: Fury Road”) is shown writing to editor Whit Burnett the words “Holden Caulfield is dead.” It’s an all-too-familiar way of opening a movie: with disillusionment. What follows backtracks to 1939, when a young and as yet unpublished Salinger — who was then under the tutelage of Burnett (Kevin Spacey) at Columbia University — unsuccessfully attempts to court New York socialite Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch).
Burnett tries to impart lessons that are valuable for any aspiring writer: Don’t let the authorial voice, for instance, overwhelm the story. And Hoult and Spacey do their best to rise above Strong’s expository dialogue and ham-handed melodrama. The film briefly comes to life whenever Deutch — so winning in “Everybody Wants Some!!” — is on the screen.
But “Rebel in the Rye” quickly arrives at an impasse: one that’s almost inevitable in movies that attempt to render the mysteries of the creative process. “It just flowed out of me,” Salinger tells Burnett, who has been encouraging the young author to dig deeper into his Holden character. What flows out of Strong’s script, unfortunately, is boilerplate literary nonsense. “I shaped them. I challenged them,” Burnett crows, about such literary giants as William Saroyan and John Cheever. “I discovered them all.”
The publishers who initially rejected Salinger’s only novel are, for the most part, portrayed as people who just don’t get it. Yet one wonders whether Strong himself gets it. Most people who have read “Catcher in the Rye” wouldn’t envision its author approving of a film that includes a book-release montage — scored against a lightly swinging jazz-vocal version of the song “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” — that shows Salinger examining his own reflection in a store window.
It’s hard to imagine a film more inaptly named. As a movie, this “Rebel” is, as it turns out, terribly by the book.
“Rebel in the Rye”
Starring Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey and Sarah Paulson. Directed by Danny Strong.
Rated PG-13 for strong language, sexual situations and graphic wartime violence. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 49 minutes.
Bottom line: A biopic that embodies the very phoniness the author railed against