Movie Reviews - 2017 postsMonday October 23, 2017
Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
The big reveal in the original “Blade Runner” is that our hero, Deckard (Harrison Ford), who is tasked with hunting down and “retiring” four renegade and superpowerful androids, or replicants, including their charismatic leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), is himself a replicant. We find that out, obliquely, in the movie’s final scene.
The big reveal in “Blade Runner 2049” isn’t that the new blade runner, K (Ryan Gosling), is a replicant, since we get that in the first scene. No, the big reveal—halfway through the film—is that he’s the offspring of Deckard and the beautiful replicant Rachael (Rachel Ward). In other words, he wasn’t formed as an adult in a lab; he came out of a replicant’s womb. In other words, replicants can reproduce.
Then the big reveal is: Naw, that wasn’t him. The true offspring is someone we met in the first act.
The power of the original “Blade Runner” is that the renegade replicants, Nexus-6 models, have a short shelf-life, four years, because their maker, the Tyrell Corporation, and specifically Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), feared that after this period they would develop human emotions and do the awful things humans do. But it's also the point where they develop empathy. You see it in Roy Batty’s eyes and manner as he’s pursuing Deckard in the film’s final scenes. He’s beginning to feel for him. He even saves his life. Then, sitting in the rain, and dying, he says his famous last words, which are like poetry:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost ... in time ... like tears in rain.
Time to die.
So because we fear the worst in us, we kill off our creations just at the point they are revealing the best in us. Nice.
The power of “Blade Runner 2049” is... um...
I first saw the original a few years after it was released, when I was living in Taipei, Taiwan, and it was a vaguely surreal experience: watching a film set in 2019 Los Angeles, where it’s forever rainy, crowded, and Asian neon signs hang everywhere, and going out into the streets of Taipei, where it was rainy, crowded, and neon signs were everywhere.
I wasn’t a huge fan, by the way. It didn’t help that I may have been making out with a girl while watching it so missed clues like the unicorn dream that revealed all. Either way, I didn’t get it. When I watched it again this week, October 2017 (the future!), I liked it a little more, but overall it’s still too atmospheric for my taste. Plus the Deckard/Rachael relationship is ... Hollywoody? Plus the star is a nothing character. Sorry, it’s Rutger Hauer’s show. I did like our evolving feelings about the movie’s villains. They’re terrifying, yes, but also interesting, and finally heroic.
The villains in “Blade Runner 2049”? Just villains.
There’s an unstated joke in the new movie and it goes something like this: About two years after the dystopia of the first film, things got bad. Some event occurred, a virus or something, and all data was lost, and so ... I guess new replicants had to be built? Also nothing could be grown so we’re eating grubs? Also it stopped raining and started snowing.
The new Tyrell is Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who seems more replicant than the replicants in the movie. We see him in darkened room that’s like a sensory deprivation chamber. He’s got that white eyeball Master Po thing going, so I assume he’s blind. Like humanity? He also speaks...slowly and...quietly.
K’s job, like Deckard’s before him, is to retire old-model replicants, and as the movie opens he does this at a California farm. Outside, he discovers a dead tree, and a date carved into it, 6-10-21, that gives him a start. Beneath the tree they discover a box filled with bones: a woman who died in childbirth but had a Caesarean section. Except not a woman, a replicant. Wallace IDs the bones as Rachael’s.
Even as the hunt is on for more clues, the powers-that-be have divergent interests. The police, in the form of K’s boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), want to suppress the info so (I imagine) the few people on Earth don’t freak. Meanwhile, Wallace wants to know how this happened—he figures replicants reproducing will be good for his bottom line—so he dispatches Luv (Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks), all black bangs, impassive face, and occasionally furious eyes, to gather intel and kill people.
The replicants are second-class citizens here, virtual slave labor, avoiding eye contact with humans. At the same time, K is allowed an apartment with a holographic woman, Joi (Ana de Armas), who greets him, nurtures him, etc. The apartment thing is curious, though. Why don’t they just unplug the replicants like with Robocop? Whose need is being met with the apartment? And just what percentage of the population is replicant? If you go by cast, it’s a lot. Mostly, we’re just watching replicants interact with replicants.
In his investigation, K visits an old factory/orphanage, which corresponds exactly to a memory he’s had implanted in him, of running from bullies and hiding a toy wooden horse with the date 6-10-21 carved in the bottom. (That’s why he started earlier.) He finds the toy and takes it to Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), a memory designer, who tells him two things: 1) replicants can’t be given memories from humans; 2) his memories are real. Meaning he’s The One.
Yeah, “The One” again.
Anyway, the horse leads him to the ruins of Vegas, where he fights with, then drinks with, Deckard (Ford, of course), older now, and as embittered as ever. But Luv and her team find them, kidnap Deckard, and leave K for dead. He’s then rescued by the rebellion, who tell him the child born to Deckard and Rachael was a girl. From earlier clues, K surmises it was Dr. Ana Stelline. But why would she implant her memories into him? I still don’t get that part. Also, what is Deckard doing in Vegas? I like the holographic Elvises and such, not to mention his whiskey-drinking dog, but...does he have company? Ever? Is he just waiting for his final act?
In the movie's final act, K kills Luv, rescues Deckard, and reunites father and daughter before dying on the steps outside her institute in the snow—like Cagney in “The Roaring Twenties,“ but without tracing his rise-and-fall arc, and without the pietá.
A lot of people are giving director Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival,” “Sicario,” “Incendies”) credit for recreating the artistic, ponderous atmosphere of the first film—but I'm obviously not a fan of that atmosphere. A few times here, waiting for shit to happen, I nearly drifted off. As for the question that began this review? I don’t see any real power to ”Blade Runner 2049." Time to die.
Movie Review: Marshall (2017)
If you’re wondering why it’s Connecticut v. Joseph Spell rather than any number of Thurgood Marshall’s more famous civil rights cases, particularly Brown v. Board of Education, it’s because the film’s screenwriter, Michael Koskoff, is a plaintiff’s attorney from Bridgeport, Conn. A colleague had researched the Spell case extensively and encouraged Koskoff, who had defended a member of the Black Panthers in the early ’70s, and whose family has a performing arts background, to write a screenplay about it. So he did. His son, Jacob, a screenwriter in Hollywood (the Michael Fassbender “Macbeth” movie), helped.
Susan Dunne, at the Hartford Courant, has a great piece on Koskoff here.
I like all of that. I like that a prestigious lawyer wrote a courtroom drama about a sensational-but-forgotten case involving one of the most famous lawyers of the 20th century. I like Chadwick Boseman’s turn as Thurgood Marshall, full of pop and verve and charm, and I like the sense of him as a marshal, a Lone Ranger, going from town to town and righting wrongs. I like the cameo at the end that lets us know the distance we haven’t traveled.
I just wish I’d liked the movie better.
Friedman > Gad
We get too many subplots. Marshall’s wife is pregnant, they hang out with Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, then she has a miscarriage. Marshall’s local counsel Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) is a young insurance-defense lawyer who is basically snookered into the case. His wife, Stella (Marina Squerciati), is angry at him for even taking it, but at the local synagogue, piqued by a bigoted friend, she comes around. Then she finds out about her family in Europe. The Holocaust looms. Crazy bigots are on every other street corner, and synchronize attacks on Marshall and Friedman. The lawyers have battle scars. Oh, and one of the jurors has a thing for Friedman.
In reality, Friedman was an attorney in good standing who mostly needed counseling on how to present racial matters, not how to present a criminal-defense case. This description of Friedman by Daniel J. Sharfstein for Legal Affairs in 2005 is way more interesting to me than the movie’s fumbling version:
A few years older than Marshall, Friedman had practiced law with his brother, Irwin, since the 1920s. Unassuming in his dark three-piece suit and matching bow tie, his short black hair neatly combed back, Friedman was developing a reputation as a tenacious advocate with a flair for courtroom drama.
And why didn’t we get this scene?
Bridgeport was not a hospitable city for African-Americans: A 1933 Connecticut law banning discrimination in public places was not enforced. Friedman was allowed to take Marshall to lunch at the Stratfield Hotel restaurant only because he was the hotel’s lawyer.
Spell (Sterling K. Brown, Chris Darden in “The People v. O.J. Simpson) was accused by his employer, prominent socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), of rape and attempted murder, and right from the beginning (not at the end of the second act, as in the movie), Spell tells his lawyers that it was consensual sex. It’s basically he said/she said—but with the “he” black and the “she” white and well-connected. His story has fewer holes but you’re dealing with all-white jury in 1941. So who knows? I like that, too. It’s not super obvious which way the jury will go.
By the time the jury delivered its verdict (not guilty), Marshall, as in real life, had already moved on to another town and another case, but the movie implies that Strubing wanted something from Spell after it was over. Tenderness? Forgiveness? At least publicly, that wasn’t the case. From The New York Times, Feb. 3, 1941:
Mrs. Eleanor Strubing, socially prominent Greenwich (Conn.) woman whose Negro butler was acquitted last week of charges that he attacked her, said today "the verdict leaves the women of America at the mercy of any one who may seek their ruin. ... The law has failed utterly in this case. My indignation is boundless.”
The state’s governor, too, was swamped with mail saying the verdict was “beyond all belief” and “a disgrace to Connecticut,” while the district attorney, Loren Willis (Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey”), considered an appeal. It was like the O.J. verdict; white people were incensed.
What’s odd and tone-deaf about the movie, particularly in this weekend when Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual harassment is all over the news, is how the defense discredits Strubing’s story. They imply she’s lying because she didn’t go for help; she didn’t scream. It ignores what panic does to people. I felt like I could’ve argued her case better than the D.A.
Overall, “Marshall,” directed by Reginald Hudlin (“House Party,” “The Ladies Man”), is a sleeker, glossier version of history than I like, but the ending, particularly once you know the cameos, is powerful.
Marshall continues on to his next case (in reality Oklahoma, here Mississippi), where, via a bad phone connection, he gets the good news from Friedman. He smiles and leans against the wall ... and into the picture we see a “Whites Only” drinking fountain. I would’ve liked just that, just that reminder, but the movie demands Marshall get all Jane Pittman on us, drinking from the fountain before walking out to meet his new clients in his next civil rights case. Who are they? Parents dealing with the horrors a racist system does to their children. Why is that powerful? They’re played by Trayvon Martin’s parents.
It’s like Marshall has stepped through the past and into our time. It’s like that role, that Lone Ranger role, moving from town to town and trying to extract a small piece of justice, never ends.
Movie Review: Wolf Warrior II (2017)
It’s got a great open. I’ll give it that.
In a single shot, we see Somali pirates attack a freighter, the panicked faces of the crew, and then, moving with grace and purpose, there’s our hero from the first “Wolf Warrior,” Leng Feng (Wu Jing), diving into the water, upending the hijackers’ inflatables and fighting and defeating them underwater before he—and this is still one shot, by the way—pulls himself into one of the remaining inflatables, grabs a rifle and picks off the lead hijacker (who’s aiming at him) with a crack shot from a hundred yards away. Cue credits.
Then it gets stupid fast.
I don’t mind the overt nationalism, the literal flag-waving, the Chinese businessman who dismisses his Chinese citizenship only to cling to Leng Feng and that very citizenship once the bullets start flying.
No, it’s the racism, stupid.
Not your typical travelogue
In case you haven’t been following Chinese box office receipts (most westerners), or reading this blog (ditto +), “Wolf Warrior II” is the movie phenomenon of the year. Last year, Stephen Chow’s “The Mermaid” shattered Chinese box office records by bringing in $526 million, which was a startling, tough-to-beat amount. But this shattered that. In China alone, it grossed $852 million. Add the $20 million it made abroad, and “Wolf Warrior II” is the first Chinese movie—hell, the first non-Hollywood movie—to enter the list of the top 100 movies in terms of worldwide gross. It does for the movie business what Leng Feng does for geopolitics: Makes a stand for China.
The first “Wolf Warrior,” which came out in March 2015 and grossed a respectable-ish $80 mil or so, was all about border security and protecting the homeland. “Don’t even think of going back when you break into China!” Leng tells the movie’s villains. This one is about protecting Chinese nationals abroad. The movie may revel in explosions and violence amid a bloody civil war and an Ebola-like disease in a fictional coastal African nation—things that normally put one off travel—but it ends with a shot of a Chinese passport and this message:
“Citizens of the People’s Republic of China: When you encounter danger in a foreign land, do not give up! Please remember, at your back stands a strong motherland.”
China literally means “center country” (jung guo), as in “the center of the world,” and once upon a time it expected the world to come to it. No longer. Its official message now is the message of “Scarface”: The world is yours.
The last time we saw Leng Feng, he was triumphant and chatting up his superior officer/girlfriend, Long Xiaoyun (Yu Nan). So what’s he doing alone on a freighter off the African coast? The backstory comes sepia-toned.
- The Wolf Warrior team returns the remains of a fallen comrade to his family, only to find them inches away from death at the hands of a nasty developer—until Leng Feng takes care of that dude. For his troubles, or his temper, he gets three years in prison.
- During his prison stay, his girlfriend is kidnapped and killed by terrorists. The only clue is a specially designed, striated bullet that did the deed. Oddly, it’s undamaged. More oddly, he wears it on a chain around his neck as a talisman.
That’s why Africa. His search for the killer has led him here. Shame. The Chinese don’t do Africa, or black people, particularly well.
In this fictional country, Feng is godfather to a fat African kid, Tundu (Nwachukwu Kennedy Chukwuebuka, making his film debut), who is both li’l rascal (selling bootleg porn), and pudgy comic relief (forever interested in food). When the bullets fly, and Feng goes above and beyond to get him to the safety of a Chinese warship, Tundu runs down the plank crying for him mom, who’s stuck in an inland city. Feng promises to bring her back, setting in motion the rest of the movie. Later, Tundu sees his mom via Skype, and cries. He cries while eating. He’s got a big bounty in front of him, courtesy of the Chinese, and he’s both crying and stuffing his face.
But that’s not close to the worst of it. Here’s the worst of it. More than halfway through, in the quiet after a battle, Feng and He Jianguo (Wu Gang), an old, wise, former career soldier, watch as the Africans celebrate another day of living by lighting a bonfire and dancing. “Our African friends,” says He. “Once they’re around a bonfire, they can’t help themselves.”
While the movie is obtuse in its racism, it’s concise in its anti-Americanism—although with an odd corresponding need for western approval. Sure, the movie’s villain, Big Daddy (Frank Grillo), goes out in a blaze of racist glory (“People like you will always be beaten by people like me” he says to Leng Feng), but first he has to give grudging admiration: “I guess the Chinese military isn’t as lame as I thought,” he sneers. Ditto Leng Feng with the U.S. military. The female lead, feisty American girl Rachel Prescott Smith (Hong Kong actress Celina Jade), mistakenly thinks the U.S. will come to her rescue. “You think the U.S. Marines are the best in the world?” Leng Feng asks her. “They may be, but where are they now?” The point is we lack spirit. We cut and run. China doesn’t. They steam into port while we flee.
Except ... our Marines may be the best in the world? Under the circumstances, that’s kinda sweet.
If you can get past the racism and the geopolitics, “Wolf Warrior II” is your typical action-adventure, with an indestructible hero, near-indestructible villains (including 6’ 6” Ukrainian martial artist Oleg Prudius), and tons of explosions. The spoiled soldier redeems himself while the hectoring middle manager doesn’t. Leng Feng’s original goal—rescuing Tundu’s mom—keeps growing, as he’s responsible for more and more civilians, in worse locations, even as the bad guys close in. Oh, and it turns out Big Daddy is the one who uses striated bullets. Shocker.
Comparisons to mid-80s Stallone are inevitable. Like Rambo in “Rambo II,” Leng fights for his country’s honor abroad; he rectifies past wrongs and imagines future greatness. Like Rocky in “Rocky IV,” he drapes himself in the flag. Leng literally wears it on his sleeve so his rag-tag group of Chinese nationals and African locals can safely drive through a war zone. “Hold your fire!” the African soldiers shout. “It’s the Chinese!”
So what does it all mean? Why did the ultra-patriotic “Wolf Warrior” do meh box office while this one went gangbusters? Because sequels do better than originals? Because “I” was local and “II” international? Because “I” was released when Obama was president and “II” came out during the first hot, idiot summer of Trump?
Maybe the better question is this: When will Chinese movies begin to do better internationally? They’ve already got the production values, the tropes, and the explosions of Hollywood. What’s missing? A white face? But that doesn’t explain the international popularity of stars like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or Will Smith. Does the movie contain too much nationalism? Or maybe the wrong kind of nationalism? Almost anyone can imagine themselves American, after all, but only the Chinese get to be Chinese.
That’s one of the great ironies about “Wolf Warrior II”: The movie about Chinese power abroad is really only powerful at home. But make no mistake: There’s a lot of power there.
Movie Review: American Made (2017)
“American Made” is a fun, rollickin’ look at the insane juxtaposition of South American drugs, anti-communist rebels and right-wing American politics in the early 1980s. I laughed throughout at the absurdity and hypocrisy of it all.
Pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is a good-ol-boy cog in these machines. At each turn, as things ratchet up and he’s faced with a powerful and dangerous handler giving him a new insane mission, he just tosses up his hands, gives us that Tom Cruise All-American smile, and says, “Whatever you say, boss.” He’s the daredevil trying to thread his way amidst several colliding enterprises. No wonder he gets crushed.
I liked that aspect of the movie. A lot. I also liked that we were getting necessary history here—the Howard Zinn-ish underside of the All-American smile, the cynical wink behind the Reagan-era propaganda.
Until, that is, I looked into the history.
Ellin Stein at Slate goes over some of the discrepancies between fact and fiction here, but it may be enough to know that the movie opens in 1978 with Seal as a straight-laced TWA pilot who gets sucked into the biz by a CIA contact named “Shafer” (Domhnall Gleeson), when Seal wasn’t with TWA in 1978. He was fired in ’72 after being arrested for running plastic explosives. So not exactly straight-laced. He also didn’t look like Tom Cruise, either—more like a ’70s-era Joe Don Baker—but that’s artistic license we’re used to from Hollywood. Hell, that’s the one we demand.
In the movie version, Seal is so bored with his routine that he fakes midnight turbulence to jolt the passengers and can’t be bothered to schtup his hot blonde wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), back in Baton Rouge. Then “Shafer” arrives. Initially Seal is just taking CIA reconnaissance photos—the best anyone in the agency has seen!—but on a runway in Colombia he’s requested at a meeting with the Medellin cartel (Escobar, et al.), and agrees, on his own, to transport their cocaine back to the U.S. Eventually he’s caught up in an Escobar raid and winds up in Colombian prison. Shafer springs him overnight (in reality he spent six months there), and warns him the DEA is descending. So Seal moves his family to the sleepy town of Mena, Arkansas, where the CIA has bought him a home and 2,000 acres—including his own airfield and fleet of planes.
Soon his team is running guns to the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua—portrayed as materialistic dopes, less interested in overthrowing the Sandinistas than in stealing Seal’s sunglasses. The CIA decides they just lack training, and do it on Seal’s property in Arkansas. Half the Contras wind up fleeing into the Arkansas hills, their semi-automatics wind up in the hands of the Medellin cartel, and Seal, still transporting coke, can’t bury the money fast enough. Meanwhile, Pres. and Nancy Reagan are on TV extolling the virtues of the Contras and “Just Say No.” It’s a hilarious mass of hypocritical clusterfuckiness.
But how much of it is true? At one point, to disentangle himself from his various messes, Seal agrees to be a DEA informant and take photos of Escobar, et al., loading drugs with the Sandinistas, which would tie Reagan’s pet causes together: communists = drug runners. Then Reagan shows the photos during an address to the nation. Now the cartel knows Seal betrayed them. Nice going, Reagan!
Except ... Reagan gave that address to the nation in March 1986, a month after Seal was shot to death by the Medellins outside a Salvation Army facility, where he was doing community service work. As for the Contras being trained in Arkansas? There appears to be just one source on that. A shaky one.
Here’s a question I have for writer Gary Spinelli and director Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity,” “Edge of Tomorrow”): If you’re going to smudge the history, why not at least get the chronology right? Early on, we see Jimmy Carter giving his malaise speech from ’79 and then title graphics tell us it’s 1978. We see Reagan coming into office in 1981 and then title graphics tell us it’s still 1980.
Seriously, doesn’t anyone give a shit about chronology anymore?
Cruise is good in the title role—amoral and care-free and grinning to the very end, a kind of bookend to his 1980s “Top Gun” star turn—and Wright holds her own. Loved Jesse Plemons in a small role as the Mena sheriff who’d rather think the best of people, or look the other way, until Seal’s idiot brother-in-law, JB (Caleb Landry Jones), forces him to act. As for Jones, he does what he did in “Get Out”: adds a shiver of someone so off-kilter that the smooth-running enterprise gets creepy. If you’re looking to make your audience uncomfortable, plop him into your movie.
The movie’s fun. It’s a stew of all the idiot political crap we went through in the ’80s. As history? Take it with the grains of salt on your popcorn.
Movie Review: Rebel in the Rye (2017)
I so wanted “Rebel in the Rye,” the first biopic of J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult), to use this quote as its epigraph:
“The goddamn movies. They can ruin you. I’m not kidding.”
– Holden Caulfield
But for that it would need a sense of humor—or confidence in its final product.
The movie doesn’t ruin Salinger’s story (I’m not saying that), it just focuses on the conventional and ignores the oddities that might reveal something. It gets the irony of his trajectory (from unknown author desperate to publish to world-famous author refusing to publish), but it misses out on a greater irony. Which is right there.
“Rebel” begins with Salinger’s teacher, Story editor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), telling Salinger to focus on story, and it ends—if you know anything about Salinger's arc—with Salinger essentially giving up on story. “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” (published, Nov. 1955) was his last real story-story that wound up in print. After that, he gave us “Zooey” (May ’57), which is self-indulgent but at least resolves beautifully; then “Seymour: An Introduction” (June ’59), which is just Buddy Glass writing about his dead genius of an older brother (and that tries and fails for the epiphany of “Zooey”); and finally “Hapworth 16, 1924” (June ’65), a 100-page letter written by Seymour ... at the age of 6. Then silence. The movie doesn’t comment upon any of this.
Even its title is off: “Rebel in the Rye”? I guess someone wanted “...in the Rye” and “Rebel” was alliterative and James Dean-y, but ... nah.
But the movie did take me back.
Salinger: An introduction
Mostly it took me back to the summer of 1987, the year after I graduated from college, when I was living in Minnesota, pining for a girl in Maine, and unable to function, really. I wound up re-reading a lot of Salinger that summer. I felt bruised, other authors only pressed on the sore spots, and Salinger soothed. I needed him so much I sought out the stories he’d published before “The Catcher in the Rye,” and before the stories of “Nine Stories,” and those are some of the stories we see him create here: “The Young Folks”; “Slight Rebellion off Madison.” I liked hearing those titles again. I liked seeing Story magazine and getting some of its backstory.
OK, so here’s the conventional part. We see Salinger getting rejection letter after rejection letter (what writer can’t identify?), and needing the confidence to ignore bad edits and the humility to accept good ones (same). At one point, Salinger finally lands his white whale, The New Yorker, with a Holden Caulfield story (“Slight Rebellion”); but then the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and the story suddenly seems too frivolous for a nation at war and they don’t publish. Watching, in the near-empty theater, I practically did a doubletake. In early 2003, the L.A. Times accepted a non-fiction piece from me; then the Iraq War broke out and the piece suddenly seemed too frivolous for a nation at war. Happy ending: Both stories eventually saw print.
As for the oddities? His early girlfriend, Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), supposedly liked talented men, and supposedly saw great talent in the author of “The Young Folks.” But how is Jerry even in her orbit? She’s the daughter of Eugene O’Neill, and wound up married to Chaplin. How is he there?
After the war, he comes home with PTSD, writer’s block, and a German wife—Sylvia Welter. We don’t see how they meet, why they marry, how they divorce. We’re outsiders to all that. We’re like family—stunned that he’s married and then stunned again that he’s divorced.
As for that writer’s block? Salinger kept publishing throughout the war—stories about the war. But here he’s got the block, and it requires Zen Buddhism to get him going again, and that allows him to finish “The Catcher in the Rye.” And that changes everything.
Except it was all a little less obvious than that. The movie is based on Kenneth Slawenski’s much-recommended biography, “J.D. Salinger: A Life,” and Slawenski ties Salinger’s post-war silence less to a “block” and more to Sylvia. He writes that after the wedding, despite being a lifelong letter writer, Salinger suddenly stopped corresponding with family and friends. And after the divorce, Salinger traveled to Florida (shades of “Bananafish”), where he wrote a friend:
He and Sylvia had made each other miserable, he said, and he was relieved to see the relationship end. He also confessed that he had not written a word in the eight months they were together. In Florida, he managed to complete his first story since early 1945. He considered the piece unusual and named it “The Male Goodbye.”
I like some of the interaction with the various New Yorker editors, particularly Gus Lobrano (James Urbaniak) and William Maxwell (Jefferson Mays)—how they helped with “Bananafish” but actually rejected “Catcher” as unfocused—but not enough of it sticks. There’s Eric Bogosian as Harold Ross, but why not William Shawn, who edited Salinger’s later, more unfocused work, and to whom he dedicated “Franny and Zooey”? Was Wallace Shawn not available?
His main relationship in the movie is with Burnett, who keeps telling him that Holden Caulfield is a novel, and with whom he has a falling out. In the mid-40s, Burnett promises to publish a collection of Salinger’s early short stories but he’s overselling his influence. Burnett’s boss says no, Salinger blames Burnett, and for the rest of the movie Spacey is forced to hold up his hands and trail after Salinger helplessly. It’s a little sad. Not to mention undramatic. Also: Isn't it odd that Salinger keeps exploring spirituality, religion, God, that he concocts the fat lady as Christ, yet remains so hardhearted and unforgiving? You could call him the most unforgiving Buddhist who ever lived. You could, since the movie is silent on the subject.
Salinger: An exit
Hoult is a fine actor but he’s all wrong as Salinger—too handsome, not long-faced enough, not sad-eyed enough. Plus the New York accent comes and goes.
After “Catcher” is published, Salinger is suddenly the talk of the town but he doesn’t want to be. It’s worse when troubled young men show up on his front stoop wearing red hunting caps, identifying with Holden, prefiguring John Hinckley. Did it happen? I couldn’t find a word of it in Slawenski’s book. I assume it’s Hollywood license; it’s “goddamn movies” stuff.
The rest, to be honest, is a little dull. Salinger meets a girl at a party, Claire Douglas (Lucy Boynton), who’s actually 16 but the movie is mum on this, too. She disses him, he falls in love, or something. They move out to Cornish, N.H., get married, and he slowly closes himself off from the world. Any small betrayal is a final betrayal.
Here's the problem: Is this a tragedy? What he does to himself? What he does to his readers? Cutting himself off verbally, then cutting himself off literarily, to tamp down on his gargantuan ego? To save himself from himself? The movie really doesn’t take a stand. Writer-director Danny Strong just presents it. And, to be fair, maybe that’s all you can do at this point. Maybe we won’t know if it was an act of grace or hubris until we know what Salinger wrote in his—to borrow a phrase—jealously defended privacy. But from out here it sure doesn't feel healthy.