Mark Reviews Movies

Rebel in the Rye


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Danny Strong

Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Sarah Paulson, Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton, Victor Garber, Hope Davis

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some language including sexual references, brief violence, and smoking)

Running Time: 1:46

Release Date: 9/8/17 (limited); 9/15/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 14, 2017

If there's one thing that movies in general have a difficult time communicating and dramatizing, it's the process of writing. It's boring and tedious to anyone except the person doing the writing. This means that any filmmaker trying to examine the life and work of someone like J.D. Salinger is going to run into some significant dramatic problems. If it's already difficult to show the writing process in an engaging way, how could a movie possibly make Salinger's life—the majority of which was about writing and not much else as far as anyone can tell—interesting? Rebel in the Rye tries, although it does so by basically ignoring the writing the part.

Sure, Salinger, called Jerry throughout the movie and played by Nicholas Hoult, does write here, but as depicted in the movie, the turning point of his life is defined by a montage of him typing away on a series of pages, before ripping each of those pages into pieces. The catharsis is in the tearing—being able to show, not only that he can write, but also that he can reject what he has written. There's a solid point to be made about the writing process here, but that's not what the sequence is about. It's a form of spiritual therapy for Jerry, who has returned home from World War II to a crippling case of posttraumatic stress disorder.

In this context, the writing means nothing. It's akin to reciting to a mantra, which is appropriate, since, at this point, Jerry has connected with a guru, who teaches him in the ways of Zen Buddhism to help him clear his mind of the horrors of the war. Jerry tries to keep the war from his mind as much as possible by writing during his downtime, but in the end, it doesn't help.

All of these are biographical beats that are necessary for a story about Salinger. That gets to the heart of the issues with writer/director Danny Strong's movie: Everything that happens here feels like a requirement. This is more of a checklist of everything we expect from a story about the famously reclusive author than an actual story. There's the early writing, the war, the post-war problems, the unexpected level of fame, and the self-imposed isolation. Everything here happens, not only because it did happen, but also—and mainly—because it must.

This doesn't seem like a movie of passion or even significant intrigue for its subject. The movie feels like a work of obligation. There are few writers—modern, American, or any category—who can elicit as much easy fervor or simple derision as Salinger. Of course, most of that is because his 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye came at just the right moment and tapped into a sense of angry disillusionment that hadn't been as clearly and popularly spoken until that point. There is, perhaps, a movie just in the fact of that debate over the qualities of the novel. Instead, the debate, especially the book's ardent admirers, becomes yet another plot point—another checkmark on the list.

Strong's screenplay (based on the biography by Kenneth Slawenski) doesn't start that way, which makes the second half even more disappointing. Before the war, Jerry lives at home with his parents Sol (Victor Garber), who wants his son to join the family food-packing business, and Marie (Hope Davis), who supports her son's dreams of becoming a professional writer. The kid enrolls in Columbia University, where he's taught creative writing by Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), who also edits a short story magazine. At night, he woos Oona O'Neill (Zoey Deutch), an aspiring actress who's the daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill.

Let's leave Jerry's familial and romantic relationships as part of the movie's biographical checklist, and instead, let's focus on his relationship with Whit. There is some actual meat to the scenes between the two, as, from his professor, the egotistical, young "smart aleck" learns about the balance of the author's voice with an actual story, the humility of rejection, and that being a writer means a devotion that doesn't always result in success. They're not subtle scenes, mind you, but they are honest ones. They also come across as the setup to a biography that might actually care about writing, even if its communication of that attention only comes through conversation, montages of Jerry at a typewriter, and spoken snippets of his work.

Once the war begins, though, the screenplay goes into a mode of simply recounting events. Jerry overcomes his experiences in the war enough to finish the remaining chapters of his novel, which is met with disdain from certain publishers but becomes an overnight success. Ardent fans, dressed as the protagonist of the book, begin stalking him, looking for Jerry to explain why they feel the way they do. He meets his second wife Claire (Lucy Boynton) and eventually finds peace in New Hampshire.

These are events. That's all that they are. Strong breezes through them, only offering an explanation of Salinger's personality and work through biographical details (Because this happened, he was like this). In this way, Rebel in the Rye is a reductionist, unhelpful biography.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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