As with many other productions that choose writers as the backdrop, the subject of Rebel in the Rye only highlights how unimaginative it actually is. The film tells the story of J.D. Salinger, famous for many short stories but primarily for his seminal novel, The Catcher in the Rye. Much of Salinger’s professional life is covered here, from the first time he is published to his eventual seclusion in his fenced-in estate, where he would spend the last 60 years of his life. The main problem is an attempt to cover everything, but not to explore much of what makes Salinger’s life so fascinating. Like too little butter spread across too much bread, Rebel In the Rye is serviceable, but painfully bland.
Considering how fascinating the life of Salinger actually was, this representation is a shame. Both his life and the film include his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder after his experiences in World War II, finding inner peace with help from a Hindu spiritual teacher, and reaching international fame and growing to hate it. All of this culminates with his 60-year seclusion that only intensified his fame and mystique. The film certainly has a tall order, one that it fails to rise to. It simply covers the events, without exploring or interconnecting them to build a cohesive whole. Each part by itself is interesting in theory, especially because it actually happened to this man. But if the film cannot do little else than give a biographical account of his life that one could easily find online or in a library, well then it isn’t much of a film, is it?
The acting and dialogue are adequate at best,with shocking dips in quality. The film emphasizes the relationship between Salinger (Nicholas Hoult), and his former professor and friend Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey). While this relationship works for the most part, and is genuinely one of the best aspects of the film, the film abandons this good faith in the second act. It involves Salinger becoming furious and cutting off ties with Burnett in a crowded diner, and it is one the film’s worst moments. The dialogue seems robotic, the acting is unconvincing, and the anger lacks reason, resulting in a moment that feels completely unearned and merely a plot device to keep the film moving. This is one of the horrible cases when a movie about literary genius is unable to subtly portray that genius, and instead just forces actors to ham-handedly spell out exactly what they are thinking.
The editing doesn’t help either. Scenes do not flow together, and rarely reflect back onto another in any meaningful way. About halfway through the film, Salinger is brutally mugged in a park after drunkenly offering to share his booze with his would-be assailant. His mugger is initially friendly, until he turns on him. This whole scene is shot through a wide angle, with no close-ups or changes in frame, which undercuts the dramatic change in the scene. The scene then immediately cuts to Salinger staring intensely at a merry-go-round. What exactly is this supposed to make the viewer feel?
This takes the viewer on a crazed back-and-forth throughout the entire movie. The tone shifts constantly, especially towards the end. The film asserts its ending awkwardly and abruptly on a whiplash gearshift from Salinger’s depression and family-neglect to his triumphant creative transcendence. The film fails to strike the proper tone, choosing to play up the ending with heroic scores instead of a melancholy look at a complicated life.
The film has some good insight on author’s intent and his struggle to preserve originality and integrity in a brutal press-system. It also is a good introduction to learning about Salinger from a factual point of view. For example, did you know that Salinger fell in love with Oona O’Neill (daughter of famed playwright Eugene O’Neill) only to discover during the war that she herself had fallen in love with the much older Charlie Chaplin? If you are either a die-hard fan or know next to nothing about Salinger, you might enjoy the experience. Just expect to see a film with a bland, melodramatic filter.
Featured Image by IFC Films