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Sarah Paulson, left, and Nicholas Hoult star in Rebel in the Rye, a biographical film about the life of author J.D. Salinger.

Alison Cohen Rosa/Courtesy of IFC Films

1.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Rebel in the Rye
Written by
Danny Strong, Kenneth Slawenski
Starring
Sarah Paulson, Zoey Duetch, Kevin Spacey, Nicholas Hoult
Country
USA
Language
English

The least interesting thing about a writer's life is his time at work. Whether it's J.D. Salinger, Margaret Atwood or any lesser hack it's all the same: a person at their most alone confronting a blank page. Being a writer can be glamorous; writing is always tedium.

Director Danny Strong pulls out the same clichés Hollywood has used over and again to try to make the process more interesting than it actually is in his biopic of Salinger, based on Kenneth Slawenski's biography J.D. Salinger: A Life, published in 2010, the year the reclusive author died. We see the young Salinger stuck at his desk lighting matches and throwing pages in the garbage. We see his trembling hand hovering above a page. There is sometimes music. When all else fails, there's a montage.

Don't blame Strong, who wrote Lee Daniels's The Butler, and here makes his feature directorial debut, for failing to make writing cinematically interesting when no one else has pulled it off. But do blame him for creating a hackneyed portrait unbefitting its subject.

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When we first see Salinger, he is struggling with PTSD from his time in combat in Europe and unable to write.Then we flash back to 1939, when a fresh-faced Salinger, played capably by Nicholas Hoult, is chasing girls and full of himself and his talent. His father (Victor Garber) tells him he'll never succeed. "I just don't want you to be disappointed when it doesn't work out," he says. But Salinger's loving mom (Hope Davis) encourages him to attend creative writing classes at Columbia University. It's there that young Salinger meets Story magazine editor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey) who spars with the smart aleck and helps draw out his abilities in the dashing, patches-on-elbows inspiring manner of every creative writing teacher ever seen on film, usually with artlessly direct dialogue. "Do you write to show off your talent, or express what's in your heart?" Burnett asks at one point.

All the while Salinger complains about phonies, literary and otherwise. One wonders how livid he would be at Strong's portrayal of the creative process. Every time inspiration hits Salinger, whether it's young children at a table or the sight of a carousel in Central Park, the camera freezes, music swells and Salinger stands there dumbstruck. The only thing missing is a light bulb over his head.

When the U.S. enters the Second World War, Salinger is shipped overseas. A very few scenes show us the horrors he experienced, including brief glimpses of concentration camps. Salinger comes home a changed man totally committed to the purity of his vision. He's got a story featuring a character named Holden Caulfield whom editors love. It's Burnett who keeps insisting Holden isn't a short story, he's a novel.

Salinger clashes with editors, insisting that literature should reflect real life, and real life often doesn't have happy endings. He'll even turn down The New Yorker if he must, because he's a rebel. "I won't do it, I won't change a word!" he yells at his agent (Sarah Paulson), "Holden would not approve!"

When Catcher in the Rye is published, Salinger is stalked by strangers who insist they are Holden Caulfield. He tries to find peace through meditation and Zen Buddhism. His swami (Bernard White) keeps telling him to remove distractions from his life. So Salinger moves to a farmhouse in Cornish, N.H., with his wife and young child. There is a very brief exchange with a high school girl, but otherwise the film ignores his affairs with, and some have said his exploitation of, younger women, including teenaged girls he pursued in his 50s.

This is the way it is with Rebel in the Rye: It wants so much to cover everything, and do so in a way that is so laudatory of Salinger's genius and purity that it never really delves into anything interesting or complex. It merely skims.

Once Salinger decides not to publish and has removed himself from the world, we hear him say that writing has become his religion. It's one last artlessly direct declaration in a film stuffed with them.

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Rebel in the Rye keeps insisting that Salinger's genius was his dedication to truth stripped of cliché while giving us little more than a trite portrayal of a literary legend.

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