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Expansive Salinger biopic 'Rebel in the Rye' seeks to know the man through his relationships

POSTED September 22, 2017 5:40 a.m.
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“REBEL IN THE RYE” — 2½ stars — Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Zoey Deutch, Sarah Paulson; PG-13 (some language, including sexual references, brief violence and smoking); in general release

“Rebel in the Rye” is an attempt to understand author J.D. Salinger through his different relationships. But while the angles are plentiful, this broad biopic of the famous reclusive author of “The Catcher in the Rye” feels like it might have benefitted from a little more focus and depth.

Director Danny Strong’s effort follows Salinger’s life in mostly chronological fashion, opening in the late 1930s as he enrolls at Columbia University, determined to become a successful writer. It is here that we are introduced to the key relationship that will drive most of the film, as Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) meets his future mentor, creative writing professor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey).

Burnett is a savvy taskmaster, more than capable of handling Salinger’s abrasive personality and spouting quotable bits of literary counsel like “nothing is more sacred than story” at every turn. He inspires Salinger’s growth as a writer, and as editor of Story magazine, eventually gives the young man his first publishing credit.

Salinger’s love life is also a focal point, and his relationship with Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), the socialite daughter of celebrated playwright Eugene O’Neill, is another key thread in the film — and Salinger’s mental health — right up until she marries Charlie Chaplin instead. She marries Chaplin because World War II has swept Salinger away from his blossoming literary success (helmed by his agent, Dorothy Olding, played by Sarah Paulson) and to the European front, via the Normandy beaches.

The war represents another of Salinger’s troubled relationships, though its influence eventually leads to some of his greatest work, including the first chapters of what would be “Catcher in the Rye.” Upon returning home, Salinger’s prewar literary progress is derailed by post-traumatic stress disorder, and for a time, he is unable to write anything about his fictional muse, Holden Caulfield. He also has a falling out with Burnett, but picks up another mentoring relationship under the meditative tutelage of Swami Nikhilananda (Bernard White).

Altogether, “Rebel in the Rye” pieces together a kind of upper class rags-to-successful literary riches story, which then goes dark once again when Salinger’s sudden fame for “Catcher” drives him and his second wife Claire (Lucy Boynton) into seclusion. The film is ultimately an attempt to tell the story of how Salinger became the famous recluse who never published again and tries to explore the different literary theories and philosophies that took him to that place.

Aspiring and accomplished writers will find numerous relatable themes and platitudes, including “imagine the book that you would want to read, and then go write it.” At times, Strong’s script feels a little too ready and willing with such quote-worthy expressions, but it helps to have a veteran like Spacey delivering them.

Hoult does a solid job as Salinger, and Victor Garber’s customary stoic demeanor is a perfect match for Salinger’s disapproving father Sol, who completes the relationship that perhaps drove the author more than any other. Yet as much as “Rebel in the Rye” suggests that Caulfield is a barely fictionalized personification of Salinger himself, a study of the author’s relationship with his most celebrated character may prove the most effective in understanding the man.

There’s more than one way to learn about J.D. Salinger (the 2013 documentary “Salinger” also springs to mind), but a reread of “Catcher in the Rye” might be the best recommendation of all.

“Rebel in the Rye” is rated PG-13 for some language including sexual references, brief violence and smoking; running time: 106 minutes.

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