Directed by Shane Salerno. (2013, PG-13, 123 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 20, 2013
J.D. Salinger would have hated this movie.
Shane Salerno’s biopic about the beloved author of The Catcher in the Rye, who died in 2010, is overwrought, invasive, and full of unsubstantiated assertions and conjecture. Touted with a marketing campaign that invites viewers to “uncover the mystery” of why Salinger retreated from public life and ceased publishing new work in 1965, the film fails to deliver on its promise. Little is revealed that cannot be gleaned from reading the extant Salinger biographies, other than the film’s final disclosure (which, subsequently, has been widely reported) that there are five completed manuscripts that Salinger authorized for publication, which will be released between 2015 and 2020. The mystery that Salinger attempts to solve has nothing to do with how the writer captured on the page musings that speak to every new generation of sentient human beings and how his command of language stripped sentences and paragraphs to their perfect necessities and voice. The mystery that Salerno wants to answer is why Salinger willingly jumped off the fame juggernaut, resigned from being a public figure, and wrote voraciously with no desire to publish. Salerno can’t fathom the reasons for Salinger’s self-imposed seclusion in Cornish, N.H.; finding the key to what makes Salinger’s writing so universally adored hardly gets time under the microscope.
Salerno spends more time talking to photographers with telephoto lenses who, over the decades, laid in wait for Salinger in the hope of capturing a grainy picture, than he does talking to literary analysts and historians. Also clocking screen time are some old friends (though his latter-day friends and family are noticeable by their absence), and actors such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Cusack, and Martin Sheen. Unpersuasive reenactments and an unrevealing stage set also fill out the screen images of a man who chose to leave us with few images. A distractingly bombastic music design starts at a thundering pitch and has nowhere to go but further.
So it goes with many other aspects of this film. However, just as we were going to press, we were informed by the distributor, the Weinstein Company, that the movie I saw last week is not the same one you’re going to see when you go to the theatre. The film was originally released in New York and Los Angeles on September 6. A new cut of Salinger will open in Austin and 61 other cites on September 20. This “special edition” contains “new, never-before-seen material about Salinger's life, his complex relationships with young women, and footage of the iconic author.” I can’t imagine that this will make much substantial difference, though the new edit seems an obvious ploy to counteract the negative critical response the film has thus far received. The Hollywood Reporter states that "about 13 minutes of the original film were cut, while about eight minutes of new material were added." Does anyone really wonder why Salinger said goodbye to Hollywood?