Let me just start by saying that I wanted to like this film, I really did. As a fan of Salinger’s works, and someone who generally enjoys biopics about writers and creative people, Rebel in the Rye seemed to be right up my alley, but unfortunately fell flat in many places.
J.D. Salinger’s 1951 coming-of-age masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye, is beloved by many as a great classic of American literature. With great wit and poignancy, Salinger captures the teenage experience through the eyes of Holden Caulfield, and it is unsurprising that both Caulfield and Salinger continue to intrigue generations even 66 years after its publication. Salinger is a figure shrouded in mystery — famously reclusive, the author moved to New Hampshire and isolated himself from the world, shutting down attempts and sequels and film adaptations and surrounding himself with a battalion of lawyers, agents and strict copyright laws.
Nevertheless, Rebel in the Rye comes on the heels of films such as the documentary Salinger and 2013’s Coming Through the Rye. Based on Kenneth Slawenski’s 2010 biography J.D. Salinger: A Life, the film depicts Salinger’s struggles with his parents, who disapproved of writing as a career and wanted him to work in the meat-importing business instead. It also sheds light on his relationship with Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), creative writing professor at Columbia and editor of Story magazine, his experience fighting in World War II and his subsequent return to the U.S.
The film held the most potential in the scenes with Burnett and Salinger (Nicholas Hoult… Skins, anyone?), with Spacey bringing to life the perfect balance of forbidding authority, acerbic wit and paternal friendship in Burnett’s character. Hoult’s acting was great, but unfortunately, he seemed a little too smooth-faced to be believable, as a man who witnessed the horrors Salinger did during the war. Although it’s not as if he could’ve done much better with such an underwhelming script, something you probably wouldn’t expect in a film about a writer. The dialogue especially I found flat and stilted.
So, too, were most of the female characters in the film, who seemed to flit in and out in the blink of an eye, none of them distinctive or memorable, all of them treated as mere accessories to Salinger’s fame. Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), for example, the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill and woman who left Salinger to marry Charlie Chapin, is the supposed object of Salinger’s affection, but only has one major scene. Salinger’s German wife, however, fares worse with only one line, and then recedes from the screen. Likewise, Claire (Lucy Boynton), Salinger’s second wife, seems promising, but also fades fast.
Salinger’s experiences in WWII presented the most interesting lens through which to understand his work. He was present at some of the most important and harrowing missions, including the invasion of Normandy, all while writing and carrying on his back six chapters of his masterpiece. Disappointingly, however, the film never really dug deeply or believably enough into his PTSD and how it impacted his writing. Likewise, too many loose threads were introduced too late in the film and left untied.
In the end, I felt that Rebel in the Rye did not reveal or add much to what many fans already know about Salinger’s life. It did little to capture that distinctive voice that comes across so clearly in his writing. Ultimately, despite some of its high points, the film came across as a little too “Hollywood” and superficial to me — and you’ll have to excuse me for taking a leaf out of Holden Caulfield’s book — plain phony.
Ramya Yandava is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.