The picture isn’t five minutes old when a voice-over intones, “I’ve always found fiction more compelling than reality.” More goodies like this follow. In Rebel in the Rye, the author of The Catcher in the Rye and Frannie and Zooey, played by Nicholas Hoult, emerges as an intense, rather dim fellow trying to keep his hair in place. Alluding to the high spirits and irreverence with which Salinger’s fiction impressed the New York literary community in the 1940s, writer-director Danny Strong produces a staid, safe motion picture anyway. Like most films about writers and writing, it’s illiterate; you walk away from Rebel in the Rye thinking that everyone involved learned about writing by watching movies and shows about writers.
Here’s the truth: writers are as boring as you and me, hence the desultory state of so many movies about them, with their shots of prodigies sulking over blank typewriter pages (directors love the uncinematic depictions of writer’s block too). An early scene gets it right: the young Salinger scribbling in a hotel lobby for days, ignoring his parents (Hope Davis and Victor Garber), but especially his pushy father, who, as you might expect, recoils at the idea of J.D. wasting his time. “Meat and cheese distribution have been very good to this family,” he informs Salinger, not the first of many howlers (that Strong based his script on Kenneth Slawenski’s J. D. Salinger: A Life means nothing; he still has to dramatize the material). Fortunately, Salinger has a surrogate father, Whit Burnett, an instructor at Columbia University and editor of Story magazine, played by Kevin Spacey in an unconvincing imitation of Kevin Spacey playing an unconvincing imitation of a failed writer, flaunting his indolence and alcoholism as subtly as House of Cards‘ Frank Underwood did his cynicism; all that’s missing is Burnett turning to the camera. Strong takes the audience through the familiar paces: Salinger, going through cigs like popcorn, writes story after story, none of which are good enough for Burnett, until the Big Breakthrough happens and The New Yorker accepts him at last – with conditions attached, naturally, which, naturally, Salinger, jaw a-tremble with write-ous fury, will not accept. Fortunately, the Japanese help him out of the dilemma by bombing Pearl Harbor.
Strong, whose writing credits include The Hunger Games pictures and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, shows little flair besides whisking things along such that, like a cable movie, each scene weighs as little as the next. An affair with Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch) ends before we remind ourselves of what Salinger and O’Neill’s future husband Charlie Chaplin had in common: a taste for very young women. Although Salinger returns from war with what we would classify now as PTSD, he’s no different from the pompous jerk we see in the first third (it’s Nicholas Hoult we’re talking about here, so the pomp has a lacquer). By the time Rebel in the Rye – gross title! – enters The Razor’s Edge territory and Salinger meets a swami the picture becomes as meretricious as the phonies in The Catcher in the Rye.