It’s a myth of popular culture that J.D. Salinger hated the movies — that’d be conflating his personality with that of his most famous creation, Holden Caulfield — but it’s fair to say the reclusive author regarded the film industry with wary suspicion. Now, after Salinger spent six decades withholding the much-desired film rights to his 1951 masterwork “The Catcher in the Rye,” cinema has retaliated with karmic payback in the form of “Rebel in the Rye.” A glossily conventional biopic of Salinger’s pre-retirement years that would be unlikely to induce a change of heart in its elusive subject, Danny Strong’s film is diverting, mildly informative and — to borrow Caulfield’s adjective of choice — somewhat phony, heavy as it is on tortured-writer clichés and contrived art-imitates-life parallels. A dashing Nicholas Hoult takes a respectful stab at embodying Salinger’s mystique, but it’s hard not to feel that the best way to honor Salinger with a biopic would be to not make one at all.
As soon as “Rebel in the Rye” begins with Hoult delivering Caulfield’s immortal opening salvo in voiceover (“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like…”), it seems clear that Strong’s film isn’t about to take many structural or stylistic left turns in portraying a highly unorthodox man. Strong, who previously wrote Lee Daniels’ earnest White House diorama “The Butler” and here makes a capable feature directing debut, has a taste for on-the-nose dialogue that tidily summarizes complexities of history or character. “Do you write to show off your talent, or express what’s in your heart?” Salinger is asked at one point, turning his later-career crisis of purpose into an exchange that wouldn’t sound out of place in Oprah’s Book Club.
It might be pushing one’s luck to use that word “phony” again to describe such moments, but Strong’s script repeats it at multiple points too, as the film works overtime to forge a connection between the author, of whose personal voice and mannerisms audiences know little, and the iconic Caulfield. Here’s Salinger striking and burning matches for no particular reason; there he is staring pensively at the Central Park carousel. From its corny title on down, “Rebel in the Rye” — drawn principally from Kenneth Slawenski’s thorough biopic “J.D. Salinger: A Life” — courts viewers for whom reading “Catcher” in adolescence was a formative experience, and who might cherish a romanticized impression of the novel’s prickly creator.
On those qualified terms, “Rebel” is smoothly entertaining, polished if not especially distinctive in its production values. Following an obligatory flash-forward to the artist’s lowest ebb — where that carousel comes in — Salinger is introduced as a bristly, semi-suave NYU dropout, drifting and flirting his way through the Big Apple party scene in 1939. Cockily convinced of his writing talent but aware that he needs an extra push, he and his doting mother Miriam (Hope Davis) convince his skeptical, business-minded father Saul (Victor Garber) to let him enroll at a Columbia writing class taught by acerbic Story magazine editor Whit Burnett, played with ripe good humor by Kevin Spacey. Burnett’s crusty demeanor gives way in short order to protective mentorship of the quick-witted, precociously iconoclastic young Turk. Salinger’s increasingly in-demand short stories pursue a modern form of writing for a modern society — eschewing polite literary language and standard happy endings for a closer, rawer imitation of life. Heartbreak fuels his cynicism via a brief, passionate affair with Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), who unceremoniously ditches him for Charlie Chaplin, before World War II drastically intervenes.
Following some predictably desaturated, budget-constrained scenes of Salinger’s time in combat in Europe, “Rebel in the Rye” begins the more somber, less convincing phase of its legend-building, as the PTSD-afflicted author struggles to regain his writerly voice and sense of belonging in New York. His embrace of Zen Buddhism is addressed through some rather pat interactions with a swami (Bernard White) who helps him through his writer’s block. Next come the peaks and pitfalls of fame: from Burnett’s initial suggestion, he eventually completes a novel based around the short-story character of Holden Caulfield — and “The Catcher in the Rye” is born.
Compacting rather a lot of Salinger’s tumultuous life and career — from rejection letters to celebrity withdrawal — into 100-odd minutes, Strong nails down the fundamental facts, but misses much of the personal shading that makes for great biography. (Unsurprisingly, the script gingerly glazes over Salinger’s sexual proclivity for teenage women, which doesn’t greatly fit its idealized concept of the author as his own greatest hero.) Relying on familiar devices of montage and feverishly layered voiceover, Strong also runs into that age-old problem of how to make soulfully revealing the fundamentally uncinematic process of writing. Still, a spikily heightened Sarah Paulson considerably brightens up that side of the drama as Salinger’s loyal, no-bull agent Dorothy Golding, her delivery recalling Rosalind Russell at her most glamorously efficient.
Looking immaculate in Deborah L. Scott’s louche-sharp period wardrobe, Hoult is blithely engaging as the slickly funny, wet-behind-the-ears Salinger of the film’s opening stages. He seems less confident, however, as the weary, demon-plagued eccentric of the post-war years, though the film perhaps wisely leaves the author at his New Hampshire estate in the early 1960s, declining to fabricate too much of his later, hermetic life. It’s fitting that “Rebel in the Rye” wraps up when its subject quits publishing: Strong’s film is primarily a fan letter to the author rather than to the man himself, which is about the most gracious concession it makes to his treasured privacy.