Rebel in the Rye
Directed by: Danny Strong
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Zoey Deutch, Kevin Spacey, Victor Garber and Sarah Paulson
Run Time: 1h 46min
Genre: Biography, Drama
3 Frames out of 5
By: Shari K. Green
Rebel in the Rye starts out in 1939 when the young, talented writer J.D. Salinger (Hoult) realizes he wants to be a published author. The film moves all the way through to the moment Salinger ultimately decides publishing is no longer for him. This movie is an expository look into a mysterious and impassioned literary mind and at how his experiences, after high school, shaped one of the biggest characters in one of the most prominent and distinguished novels of the 20th Century. His father, Sol (Garber), would rather he go into the family business. Sol never encouraged or believed in him so, with the desire to prove him wrong and his mother’s insistence upon his father paying, the younger Salinger to go to Columbia. There, he studies under professor Whit Burnett (Spacey) who is impressed with the short-stories Salinger turns in but not with his ego. This is something the professor decides he must chip away at; begins to by teaching him humility and that there’s a difference in wanting to be a writer and being one.
Having been a teacher for many years, not a known author as he had dreamed of being, Burnett sees straight through him and no matter how tough he tries to appear, he understands there are plenty of vulnerabilities in Salinger. Reading his work, he also sees the talent and wants to mold his young mind as he has so many before him. Settling him down, he explains to Salinger that his writing is unique and powerful but that his voice is ego driven; a bit overwhelming for the reader to ever really get too emotionally involved. He teaches him that to properly develop the story and to engage the reader one must learn how to layer the events that take place from cover to cover.
Another important rite of passage Salinger is taught by his mentor is how to take rejection, something he doesn’t do very well. Feeling very close to the characters he writes, especially when it comes to Holden Caulfield, the protagonist in his novel Catcher in the Rye, he’s not open to much criticism and certainly not to notes or alterations. Later, we see this is such a powerful belief he even turns down a chance to get published because of his convictions.
The movie briefly touches on his short relationship with Oona O’Neill, the daughter of playwright, Eugene O’Neill. He falls head over heels in love with her and they find, when it comes to their fathers, they have a lot in common. This relationship is rife with complications and he’s tormented but it’s in this torment that he finds Holden Caulfield’s voice flows freely from him and it’s through this time period he writes most often. He also becomes close friends with Burnett who has fallen in love with Caulfield as much as Salinger with O’Neill.
Just when Salinger is about to be published in the New Yorker magazine, WWII starts and he joins the battle. While there, he sees things that affect him greatly and change him. Among those things is a headline from the newspaper that breaks his heart. Oona, a woman who he cherishes, has married Charlie Chaplin.
Upon returning home, he finds it difficult to look at things the same way he did when he was more carefree and innocent, particularly the typewriter. He especially feels differently about writing Caulfield. Caulfield was left on the battlefield and Salinger isn’t sure he’ll be able to find him again… there is too much pain attached to that voice.
We see his struggles and difficulties with PTSD and guilt for having lived through the war when friends didn’t, a failed marriage and how he eventually confronts his biggest demons to get Holden Caulfield’s story finished. When it is, it becomes the Breakout Book of the Year. Unusually detached from his success, Salinger continues to withdraw from friends and family. He has the hardest time with his celebrity when fans of the book find him everywhere, approach him… feel the need to know him. He subsequently pulls away entirely and builds a fence around his home when he discovers people aren’t to be trusted… something he instinctively already knew. Love never kept its promise and life held many disappointments. He even confesses he wishes he had never written the book. What’s most revealing is that he declares he never wanted Caulfield to be judged. Releasing the book allowed for him to be and, essentially, he has become a prisoner of his own creation.
Post-script notes explain his years after this and how popular the book not only became but still is to this very day. It’s staggering to think of the icon he created.
In conclusion, I’d say this is a movie worth your time this weekend. Sadly, it’s told in flashbacks and I say sadly because it didn’t really have to be to the degree that it is. That being said, it is a bit confusing at first.
This is a good vehicle for Nicholas Hoult to show he has grown up but he didn’t seem to be exactly right for the part. He can deliver a line but the story of a man who looked at his written work as sacred should have gone to a face that could display the fear and the anger; to eyes that could convey the intensely deep emotion that was taking place within them. Ultimately Hoult could maybe PLAY the part… but he couldn’t BE the part.