Solid biopic ‘Rebel in the Rye’ teases transformation of J.D. Salinger

SHARE Solid biopic ‘Rebel in the Rye’ teases transformation of J.D. Salinger

Nicholas Hoult plays J.D. Salinger as the young writer begins to retreat from society in “Rebel in the Rye.” | IFC FILMS

“I won’t do it, I won’t change a word! Holden would not approve!” – J.D. Salinger, rebelling against even the suggestion of changing his prose, in “Rebel in the Rye.”

The young author J.D. Salinger is walking alone one night when a teenage boy approaches — wearing a red hunting cap, just like Holden Caulfield’s, and clutching a copy of Salinger’s recently published sensation, “The Catcher in the Rye.”

“How do you know so much about ME?” says the teenager.

“I don’t,” says Salinger. “It’s just a work of fiction…”

“But I’m Holden!” calls out the boy as Salinger walks away. “I’m Holden Caulfield!”

This encounter takes place in “Rebel in the Rye,” Danny Strong’s dramatization of some of the key events in Salinger’s life. (The movie is based on “J.D. Salinger: A Life,” by Kenneth Slawenski.) And though it’s not a particularly subtle dramatic moment, there’s something resonant about it.

Maybe it’s because we know thousands upon thousands of young people for generations to come would see themselves in Holden; and we know a very tiny percentage of seriously troubled individuals, including John Lennon’s killer Mark David Chapman, would cling to “Catcheras some sort of totem.

Salinger never allowed Hollywood to make a movie out of “The Catcher in the Rye,” and though I would have loved to have seen certain actors (such as a young Timothy Hutton) playing Holden Caulfield, perhaps we’re better off with “just” the book, which ranks with “The Great Gatsbyand a handful of other works as one of the true Great American Novels of the 20th century. How could any movie compare?

With “Rebel in the Rye,” we get a solid, well-acted and basically standard biopic about the man who created Holden Caulfield, largely in his own image. Nicholas Hoult plays “Jerry” as cocky and smart-alecky but fragile and self-centered — increasingly more comfortable observing human behavior and immersing himself in his writing than interacting with friends and associates and love interests.

Zooey Deutch has an early, extended cameo as Oona O’Neill, who captured the then-unpublished Salinger’s heart and then broke it by marrying Charlie Chaplin while Salinger was fighting overseas for the Army during World War II. Deutch adds a sassy bit of 1930s/1940s rapid-talking zip to her line readings, as if mimicking the acting style of the day.

Kevin Spacey creates a memorable character in Whit Burnett, the editor of Story magazine and a key early mentor in Salinger’s development as a writer. There’s something melancholy and real about Burnett’s story arc.

“Rebel in the Rye” concludes with Salinger telling his agent (Sarah Paulson) he doesn’t want to publish any more — that writing has become his religion, and he doesn’t feel the need to share it with the outside world. So we don’t see the full transformation of Salinger from difficult but still somewhat socially engaged young writer to the ever-more-eccentric author who all but disappeared from the world (and from publishing) for nearly a half-century, becoming one of the most famous recluses in American history.

We could have stood to see even more of Salinger’s story, if you ask me.


IFC Films presents a film directed by Danny Strong and written byStrong and Kenneth Slawenski. Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements, language including sexual references, some violence, and smoking throughout). Running time: 109 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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