A great movie could certainly be made about the eventful life of J.D. Salinger, author of "The Catcher in the Rye." "Rebel in the Rye," however, is not that movie. Even its title feels kind of off-brand, as if chosen for alliteration rather than art or sense.
Danny Strong's film, which stars Nicholas Hoult as Salinger (Jerry to his friends, Sonny to his family), isn't terrible; it's just one of those period films that never catches a spark – you find yourself admiring the elegantly lit rooms and the meticulous 1940s costumes, rather than becoming immersed in the drama.
It's a movie both small-scale and sprawling, covering a number of years in Salinger's life; beginning with college days in 1939, when young Jerry – smart-mouthed but talented – took a writing class from Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), editor of Story magazine, who would become an essential mentor. "Rebel" takes us through Salinger's years of service in World War II, his emotional problems after the war, his emergence as a writer, and his eventual seclusion in rural New Hampshire – where, for the last 40+ years of his life, he never published another word.
The film, too brief for the ground it covers, barely depicts Salinger's war experiences (and what it does show us looks unconvincing), leaving us to puzzle out what happened to him afterward: an unexplained German (?) wife who almost instantly disappears, bouts of what would now be called PTSD, and frightening flashbacks at dinner parties. Hoult has a nicely wicked grin when he plays Salinger's cockiness, but never lets us inside; we don't know where the writing comes from, or exactly what died inside him.
Meanwhile, Spacey's Burnett swaggers around, enacting every imaginable Failed Writer Who Becomes a Teacher Cliche. (To be fair, Spacey doing a deadpan drunk is pretty funny; can he please do this in all of his movies?). And the rest of the cast struggles with dialogue that probably looked better on the page, such as Salinger's father (Victor Garber) intoning that "Meat and cheese distribution has been very good to this family."
"Rebel in the Rye" is based on the 2011 biography "J.D. Salinger: A Life," by Kenneth Slawenski. It left me wanting to check out the book, so perhaps as a biopic the film has done its job. You wonder, though, about what it might have been.
'REBEL IN THE RYE'
2 out of 4 stars
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Hope Davis, Victor Garber, Sarah Paulson, Zooey Deutch.
Written and directed by Danny Strong, based on the book "J.D. Salinger: A Life" by Kenneth Slawenski.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language including sexual references, some violence, and smoking throughout.