Rebel in the Rye

Review by Rich Cline | 3/5

Rebel in the Rye
dir-scr Danny Strong
prd Bruce Cohen, Jason Shuman, Danny Strong
with Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Sarah Paulson, Hope Davis, Victor Garber, Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton, Brian d'Arcy James, Eric Bogosian, Bernard White, Jefferson Mays, Will Rogers
release US 15.Sep.17,
UK 22.May.20
17/US 1h46

paulson davis garber

spacey and hoult
This biopic about JD Salinger and Catcher in the Rye took an unusually long time getting to UK audiences. Following the author from the beginning of his writing career, first-time director Danny Strong sticks to a standard biopic approach, infused with familiar dramatic period vibes. This makes the film feel rather long and tiresome, even with some sparky screenwriting and a committed central performance by Nicholas Hoult.
In the late 1930s, Jerry Salinger (Hoult) studies writing with encouragement from his mother Miriam (Davis), while his father Sol (Garber) wants him to go into the family cheese business. He's a distracted student, but teacher and mentor Whit (Spacey) recognises his potential. Despite rejections, he perseveres until his stories are published. Meanwhile, his turbulent romance with Oona (Deutch), daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill, ends while he's serving in World War II. Back home, he's too traumatised to write, but Zen Buddhism helps restore his focus. And he finally finishes his first novel.
The story is narrated by Jerry while in a mental asylum after the war, which casts a pall over the film. Meanwhile, we watch his life shift from youthful energy to shell-shocked veteran. The film's traditional manner never taps into Salinger's unique storytelling style or the themes he so cleverly explored. Instead, it centres on his relationships, career and military service, none of which feel terribly distinct. Snippets of Salinger's stories are heard in voiceover.

Hoult holds the screen beautifully, filling conversations with telling personality quirks that offer glimpses under the skin. So even if scenes are often cliched, Hoult finds the humanity in each moment. Side roles are also vivid, especially with laser-focussed performers like Spacey and Paulson (as Jerry's agent), plus the superb Davis, Garber, James and Bogosian. As rather standard romantic foils, Deutch has little to do, but Boynton makes her presence felt as Jerry's second wife.

The film is produced to a high standard, packed with cool visuals, historical details and lots of fascinating characters. The story leaps briskly, dropping in terrific points relating to Catcher in the Rye, and fans of the novel will enjoy seeing a version of the process that went in to writing it. But the script is weighed down by big events while ignoring more resonant thematic angles. The wartime montage in particular feels glib in its depiction of traumatic stress. Even so, this is a powerful depiction of how Salinger worked so tenaciously to conquer his personal demons.

cert 12 themes, language, violence 18.May.20

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