J.D. “Juvenile Delinquent” Salinger gets thrown out of schools just to piss his father off. It’s his mother who encourages him to enroll in a writing class, while his dad doubts there’ll be a single paycheque in his future. In his writing program he meets professor Whit Burnett, a hard-ass he grows to love. “Jerry” writes because he’s angry and he needs to express it somehow. Burnett shows him how to do this without alienating his reader. He’s also the one who encourages him to turn Holden Caulfield into a novel, and the one who worries him when he goes off to war.
Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) returns from war a better writer perhaps, but messed up in other ways, unsurprisingly. Catcher In The Rye is an enormous hit. That messes him up too. I wondered how I’d come to miss this movie, with notable subjects and stars, but I didn’t have to wait long to figure out the why if not the how: Kevin Spacey. He co-stars as the beleaguered, bloated professor, which means the accusations against him would have left the producers scrambling, and they buried it in a shallow Hollywood grave.
But to be fair, Spacey’s involvement isn’t the film’s only problem. It’s too neat, too well-packaged, perhaps even too kind to the author, who no doubt was an interesting, tortured recluse. Hoult is fine as Salinger, and he plays well against the likes of Sarah Paulson, Zoey Deutch, and even Spacey. But this is a pretty ordinary, banal biopic that’s a little starry-eyed about its subject, which dilutes its power and keeps us at arm’s length from the real artist, a man who loved writing but gave it up to live privately, to meditate for his mental health, and to avoid press at all costs.
It’s also, if we’re being honest, hard to reconcile a beloved and important work with so much pain. This movie is both too much (too broad) and not enough (no depth). Rebel in the Rye is more like Mediocre at the Movies.