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.