The romantic perception of great writers is they are brilliant, but tortured souls. Nobody fits this bill better than J.D. Salinger, the celebrated author of “The Catcher in the Rye,” who went on to become the most famous recluse of the 20th century.
The movie “Rebel in the Rye” is a competently made and relatively straightforward biopic that is boosted by solid performances and the fascinating details of Salinger’s life.
Salinger is gamely played by Nicholas Hoult, who brings a lot of empathy to this mercurial writer. We meet Salinger as an aimless smart-aleck from a moderately affluent background. His patient mother (Hope Davis) and stern father (Victor Garber) have nearly given up on him when he enrolls in a creative writing course with the hope of becoming a writer.
It is there where he meets his match in professor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey, in a lively part that is so in his wheelhouse he could crush it in his sleep). Burnett sees Salinger’s potential and pushes him hard while schooling him in the ups and downs of life as a professional writer.
Salinger seems on the verge of a breakout as his literary agent Dorothy Olding (Sarah Paulson) shops his work around to all the major magazines of the time. But then the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor.
Salinger enlists as a slightly broken man and is completely shattered by his war experiences that encompass everything from storming the beaches of Normandy to liberating concentration camps.
What got him through it all was the book he worked on all through the war, which became the generation-defining classic “The Catcher in the Rye.”
Hoult does a fine job of showing Salinger picking up the pieces only to have it all fall apart again when worldwide acclaim comes his way.
Salinger isn’t the most likable dude in the world, but it’s a credit to Hoult he is a mostly sympathetic character when all is said and done.
Writer/director Danny Strong has spent most of his career as a television actor and producer and might explain why cinematically it feels limited, like a really well-done made-for-TV movie.
But, while “Rebel in the Rye” isn’t going to visually blow you away, it aptly gets by on its screenplay, serving as a love letter to the art of writing and trading in on the strength of Salinger’s unique biography.
In the end, Salinger meets all our expectations of a mysterious, tormented genius, but what is admirable is he comes to this end completely on his own terms. Seclusion may not be conventional, but I think the guy earned it.
“Rebel in the Rye” is rated PG-13 for some language, including sexual references, brief violence, and smoking.