Rebel in the Rye is something called a “biopic” in the movie industry. That term too often means the creative team is trying very hard to be true to life. Unfortunately that effort doesn’t always translate into an exciting or especially entertaining film.
The story of J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) focuses primarily on his efforts to get published. The only romance for the aspiring writer resulted in a failed relationship with Oona O’Neill. The socialite/aspiring actress daughter of Eugene O’Neill (Zoey Deutch) moved to Hollywood, which according to the film, broke Salinger’s heart. At 18 she wed a much older star, Charlie Chaplin, giving up her career to bear him numerous children.
The film also focuses on Salinger’s relationship with his mentor/professor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey). Burnet later claimed to be the first to discover and encourage his difficult student’s writing talent. Agent Dorothy Olding (Sarah Paulson) also played a big role in helping Salinger find success as an author. Much of the film shows Salinger sitting at his manual typewriter and trying to write, which doesn’t make for spellbinding entertainment.
After Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye, was published in 1951, it became an iconic must-read work of literature. Salinger never wrote anything especially memorable or commercial after publishing his semi-autobiographical novel, while most readers soon realized Holden Caulfield and Salinger shared a rather dismal world view.
It’s difficult to empathize too much with Salinger, although Hoult does a fine job of portraying the reclusive writer. Salinger was aloof and disdainful of almost everyone. He was very rude and unfriendly to any fans unlucky enough to encounter the great man. Salinger died at 91 after decades of living in isolation in New Hampshire.
Rebel in the Rye was written and directed by Danny Strong, adapted from Kenneth Slawenski’s biography “J. D. Salinger: A Life.” The drama is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language, some violence, and smoking throughout the film (because that’s what people did back then). From the IFC Films Studio, Rebel in the Rye had a limited release September 8 following its debut at Sundance Film Festival.