Rebel in the Rye

rebel-in-the-rye-rev Rebel in the Rye  (2017)    IFC Films/Drama    RT: 106 minutes    Rated PG-13 (some language, sexual references, brief violence, disturbing war images)    Director: Danny Strong    Screenplay: Danny Strong    Music: Bear McCreary    Cinematography: Kramer Morgenthau    Release date: September 15, 2017 (US)    Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Victor Garber, Hope Davis, Sarah Paulson, Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton, Brian d’Arcy James, Eric Bogosian, Bernard White, Anna Bullard, James Urbaniak, Will Rogers, Jefferson Mays, Celeste Arias.

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 The Catcher in the Rye is one of the most, if not the most, prolific American novels of the 20th century. The protagonist Holden Caulfield became the voice of a generation. Author J.D. Salinger is one of the most enigmatic figures in literary history. Shortly after his book became a sensation, he retreated from the public eye and spent the rest of his life in seclusion in the country until his death at 91 in 2010. He never published a single word again. Salinger disliked a great many things especially phonies which is why he never allowed Catcher to be made into a movie (Hollywood is full of phonies). He once said that he was the only one who could play Holden but he was too old by the time his book was published in 1951 (he was 33).

rebel in the rye What I’m getting at is that Salinger is/was a fascinating person and totally deserving of a movie. One would hope that said movie would break down the wall of privacy and allow the world to see the man that built it. Writer-director Danny Strong makes a strong effort with his biopic Rebel in the Rye, the first movie ever to deal with Salinger (not counting the 2013 documentary Salinger). For the most part, it’s pretty good. It gives us an idea of what went into penning a true literary masterpiece. Sadly, it doesn’t really tell us too much beyond what we already know- e.g. Salinger’s rocky relationship with his father, his failed romance with Oona O’Neill and his PTSD following his service in WWII.

 It starts off circa 1931 when Salinger (Hoult, Mad Max: Fury Road), a notorious wise-ass already kicked out of several schools, enrolled at Columbia with the intention of becoming a writer. His father (Garber, Legends of Tomorrow) disapproves saying that he’ll never make it as a writer and nobody cares what he has to say anyway. This is where Salinger meets Whit Burnett (Spacey, Baby Driver), the writing teacher who taught him to never let his voice transcend his narrative. Burnett is also the first one to publish the author’s work (in Star Magazine) but only after he amassed a huge pile of rejection letters from other publications. It was also Burnett who encouraged Salinger to write an entire novel about Holden Caulfield instead of a series of short stories.

 Alas, the world would have to wait for Catcher in the Rye. Salinger joined the Army shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack. He was present at D-Day. He also helped out the victims of the Nazi death camps. These were the main contributing factors to the mental breakdown that landed him in a psychiatric hospital after the war ended. His bout with PTSD rendered him unable to write for a long time until he converted to Zen Buddhism. It was then that he finished the novel he started writing during his time on the battlefields. The fame that followed proved too much and he moved from New York to a quiet little town in New Hampshire. Even then, he had a hard time finding peace until he cut off nearly all contact with the outside world.

 While Strong could have dug deeper, he still does a pretty good with Rebel in the Rye. I like how he plants little things- e.g. kids playing checkers, a carousel and “F--k You” scribbled in marker on a men’s room mirror- that would ultimately be incorporated into Catcher. It leaves no doubt that Holden Caulfield was an extension of Salinger’s own ego. However, I would have liked to see more of his relationship with Oona (Deutch, Everybody Wants Some), the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill with whom Salinger had a volatile relationship. We only get a few scenes before she breaks his heart in a very public way, one that he finds out about in a newspaper. She doesn’t even send him a Dear John letter. Strong also doesn’t follow through on the characterization of second wife Claire (Boynton, Sing Street) who, when we first meet her, openly admits to NOT being impressed by Salinger or his book. In subsequent scenes, she’s just another person for the author to treat with contempt (when he even bothers paying attention to her).

 As Salinger, Hoult does a good job. Like all artists, he’s temperamental. He’s also angry, sarcastic and contemptuous of most things in society (especially phonies and superficiality). Like his literary creation, he walks a fine line between genius and madness. Spacey is also very good as his mentor and friend who would ultimately be unfriended by Salinger after he fails to get his anthology published. Rebel in the Rye has a more than capable cast and they do well. The problem is that the characters aren’t fully fleshed-out. On the plus side, I’m fascinated by the creative process and Rebel in the Rye has plenty of that. I loved seeing how Catcher came together. I loved seeing the impact it had on readers like the ones that waited outside Salinger’s house (wearing red hunting caps) to tell him how closely they relate to Holden. It foretells how the book would become the favorite of many a crazy person like Mark David Chapman (the guy who killed John Lennon) and John Hinckley Jr. (Reagan’s attempted assassin). Both were carrying copies to the book when arrested.

 As much as I like Rebel in the Rye, I think the definitive Salinger film has yet to be made. I’d love to see a filmed version of Catcher someday. What many people don’t know is that one already exists, Well, sort of. There’s a little-known 1982 film called Purple Haze that tells the same basic story of a kid getting kicked out of prep school and going home to face his personal issues. The main character is named Caulfield and his little sister is Phoebe (just like in the book). From what I recall, the makers had to make many changes- e.g. it’s set in 1968 and deals with the Vietnam War- to avoid being sued by Salinger. It’s as close to an adaptation as we’re ever likely to see. I saw it on cable years ago; it’s since faded into obscurity. As for Rebel in the Rye, it’s definitely worth a look.

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