Rebel in the Rye





When it comes to biopics there is a fine line between getting it right or wrong. A movie about writing legend J.D. Salinger is an even harder personality to pin down. In Rebel in the Rye, we have a stellar cast and a film that looks good, but it fails at everything else. Director Danny Strong (Lee Daniels' The Butler) assumes you don't know that Catcher in the Rye was a masterful piece of literary work. And if you didn't know, here is a movie that tells you, tells you, and tells you some more about J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) and what inspired the writing of his most famous book. The final result is Rebel in the Rye being a contrived piece of by the numbers storytelling.

​It begins with Salinger's growing years at Columbia college, following multiple removals from other colleges, he finds a place for himself and a mentor in creative writing professor Whit Burnett (a shape-shifting performance from Kevin Spacey). Early on, he is encouraged by his mother (Hope Davis) to become a writer, while his father (Victor Garber) tears his dreams down, telling him to work in the meat packing industry. Good thing he didn't listen to the naysayers, because it's all about getting his work published, and Burnett teaches him the ropes of how it takes a lot of rejection to become a writer.

The struggle of an artist is shown in early sequences, where J.D. receives letters denying his work at The New Yorker and late nights drinking in jazz clubs with his main interest a young Oona O'Neil (Zoey Deutch). The early scenes are delightful, but these romantic old Hollywood moments quickly fade, and soon everything about this movie goes wrong. The major problems start, ironically enough, with the writing. The screenplay from director Strong (taken from Kenneth Slawenski biography “J.D. Salinger: A Life") goes through the process of showing AND telling. We repeatedly see Salinger struggling at the typewriter, dramatically pounding away at the keys, and immediately is followed by him telling friends that he's struggling to write. When WWII begins, Salinger answers the call and will explain his fears about storming the beaches at Normandy. That is quickly followed by a radio reporting in an old-time radio voice “D-Day! The soldiers are storming Normandy!” The beats and cues are as repetitive as a broken record.

What makes J.D. Salinger an interesting figure is his mystery. Here was a writer that had all the complexities of a computer code. His writing abilities were always present, but instead of the film studying Salinger the man, a person who had multiple issues with the women he was involved with, the narrative decides to follow the authors life like a junior high book report. Hoult is a more than capable actor, honestly, he is someone who gets better with each film he stars. Unfortunately, the direction from Strong forces Hoult to carry all the weight, while other character actors, such as Sarah Paulson is reduced to playing Salinger's redundant and boring literary agent.

Most of Rebel in the Rye looks good, with impeccable 1920's set designs and well-tailored suits. The performance from Hoult is not the main problem, in fact I was happy to see that the Mad Max: Fury Road star was able to shoulder the heavy lifting. The problem is the narrative structure, with a repetitive formula of Salinger wanting to be published, feeling inadequate, succeeding, and then continuing the cycle.

The failure of a movie like Rebel in the Rye is not something I like to report. I want a film of this subject matter to get it right, especially because actors like Hoult and Spacey care enough to take on projects like this. Instead, I found myself constantly checking my watch and left with extreme disappointment. There are better ways to learn about J.D. Salinger. Maybe people should just read "Catcher in the Rye".


Written by: Leo Brady