Catcher in the Rye was required reading in high school and so Holden Caulfield quite easily became one of the most memorable fictional characters I had read up to that point in my life. The character’s voice was strong and completely stood by his assessments of all the “phony” people and situations in his life. Whether you agreed with Holden or not, his point of view was clear. The same can’t be said about David Strong’s Rebel in the Rye, a biopic documenting J.D. Salinger’s journey to the writing of his still immensely popular book. The film lacks any of the passion that Salinger had always been claimed to have in spades. It alienates the audience more than it means to and struggles to stay interesting amid the seclusion unfolding onscreen.
Jerry Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) had always been single-minded when it came to achieving his goal. Thought to be pursuing a career that would lead to nowhere and with no support from his father (Victor Garber), Salinger wound up attending Columbia and studying creative writing anyway. While there, his professor, Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), immediately took a liking to him and the pair struck up a friendship outside of the classroom. Burnett pushed Salinger in his writing, asking him to step back from inserting himself too much into the story so that it would ring more genuine for readers. It was clear from the start that Salinger’s work, mostly short stories at first, were inspired in part by his real life, which included his tumultuous relationship with Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch). Pushing himself harder than ever and losing himself in Holden Caulfield’s story, Salinger comes back a changed man after World War II and while it diminishes him personally, it only adds to the fervor of his writing.
Rebel in the Rye takes to portraying Salinger as a tortured writer. Famous for being a recluse after the publishing of Catcher in the Rye, the film falls short in its focus on Salinger. The biopic is far too worried about telling the story in chronological order and including almost every facet of Salinger’s life; so much so, that the narrative suffers because of it. Any and all conflicts in Salinger’s life are merely touched upon, but never do they feel concrete enough to believably have affected both Salinger and his writing in the eyes of the audience. This might be because the author lived a very, very private life, but Rebel in the Rye never really takes any creative liberties and so the story comes off more like a biography that could have been read online rather than a moving film.
Rebel in the Rye boasts an immensely talented cast, but writer and director Danny Strong doesn’t utilize their strengths for the film. The weak script doesn’t help matters, either, but it’s easy to see that Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, and Sarah Paulson do their best to portray their characters. Hoult and Spacey, in particular, have good interactions and there are definitely layers in how they play the relationship between teacher and student. It’s the one and only relationship that seemed to evolve within the narrative. Zoey Duetch gets the short end of the stick in that she gets the least screentime and her character’s motivations are never quite fleshed out or understood. She’s simply in the story to create pain for Hoult’s character and this is extremely unfortunate for an actress who has lots of potential (as seen in this year’s Before I Fall).
What Rebel in the Rye lacks is strength in its point of view and in developing its main character in a way that feels genuine. In many ways, the film is almost as pretentious as the phony people Holden Caulfield so often complains about. It doesn’t set out to explore so much as give us an emotionless play-by-play of Salinger’s life. It has all the makings of a solid biopic, but lacks the execution and most essentially, the heart.
" Rebel in the Rye" doesn't set out to explore so much as give us an emotionless play-by-play of Salinger's life. It has all the makings of a solid biopic, but lacks the execution and most essentially, the heart.