Rebel in the Rye
2017, PG-13, 106 min. Directed by Danny Strong. Starring Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Sarah Paulson, Victor Garber, Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton.
REVIEWED By Danielle White, Fri., Sept. 15, 2017
If a person writes a book in the middle of the woods and no one ever reads it, does it make a sound? For most writers, getting published offers validation, a reward more precious than making any money at it. (Sorry, Ma!) And this is more or less the spot in J.D. Salinger’s career where Rebel in the Rye begins. If Holden Caulfield had an origin story, this is it, as Salinger (or “Jerry” as he was known, played by Skins’ Nicholas Hoult – not a great match, looks-wise – with a perpetual furrowed brow) hammers and shapes his most iconic character into the national treasure he was destined to be.
The film offers some gorgeous backdrops as it follows Jerry from the smoky blue of an airless mental hospital to the sultry yellow of a nightclub and into the crisp white trauma of war. From the glowing green bankers’ lamps of the classroom to the intimidating mahogany of a publisher’s office, setting plays a significant role. In a way, it almost overshadows the characters, who are largely functional, save Columbia professor and Story magazine editor Whit Burnett (a pudgy Kevin Spacey) who exerts the most influence over the development of one of the most beloved cynical characters of the 20th century.
The script is credited to first-time director Danny Strong and Kenneth Slawenski, author of 2010’s J.D. Salinger: A Life. Holden and Jerry are pretty much intertwined throughout, although the scope broadens here and there to make mention of some of Salinger’s other notable works. (The dude was such a Rebel he insisted on making “bananafish” one word.)
There must have been a conscious decision to keep the details fairly clean – there’s no mention of Jerry drinking urine or pen-paling teenage girls at 50 (stunted adolescence much?) or even meeting Hemingway. Instead, it’s scene after scene where two people talk across a desk or a dinner table, sullen and mechanical, about Jerry’s brilliant writing. To wit: “Oh it’s great but we must change this or that, oh he doesn’t want to? Well, hell, we’ll publish it anyway!” There are subtle, artful pieces of dialogue which allude to the deeper stuff, but you’d have to be a Salinger scholar to catch them. The whole deal plays right into the famous tight-lipped mystique. And it’s really a bit of a bore.