Dir: Danny Strong. Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Sarah Paulson, Victor Garber, Hope Davis, Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton, Brian d’Arcy James. 12 cert, 106 mins.
Rebel in the Rye, a long-in-limbo biopic of Catcher in the Rye author JD Salinger, is already something of a time capsule. A relic presumably once designed for Oscar attention, it also bears the ungainly weight of pre-#MeToo ignorance, with Kevin Spacey cast as a kindly mentor to Nicholas Hoult’s reclusive hero. For the film’s UK release, nearly three years after its limited theatrical unveiling in the US, Spacey has unsurprisingly been scrubbed from its cover art. The same treatment should have been extended to the film itself.
Salinger, who died in 2010, was famously aloof. Although he was responsible for one of the most acclaimed novels in the literary canon, he rejected the attention and adulation it brought. Catcher in the Rye, his only full-length work, remains seminal – a petulant shriek of angst and unrest about a disaffected teen who flees to the big city for Christmas. Even in its largely sheltered perspective, there is a universal apathy to it that continues to strike a chord with young generations.
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Those same fans will probably find something troubling about the existence of Rebel in the Rye, which clumsily attempts to celebrate Salinger’s genius while disrespecting his life-long pursuit of privacy. The film charts Salinger’s apprehensive rise and determined withdrawal from the literary world. Hoult plays the man in question, skilfully imbuing him with a skittish reserve. The supporting cast are good too, from Sarah Paulson as a boozy publisher, to a warmly benevolent Spacey as Salinger’s professor at Columbia.
If only they were served appropriately by the writer/director Danny Strong, a former Buffy the Vampire Slayer actor who co-created the TV soap Empire. In his hands, Salinger is himself the least-flattering reading of Catcher’s Holden Caulfield: spoilt, exhausting, obnoxiously cynical.
The script is similarly lazy. Rather than properly explore the trauma Salinger experienced in the Second World War, or the pains of his romantic relationships (first with Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, played by Zoey Deutch, and later a dismissive graduate student played by Lucy Boynton), it races through his biography as it it were a Wikipedia page. Characters repeatedly inform us of their feelings as a result. “The book has made me a prisoner,” Salinger cries at one point. “I’ve been shackled by my own creation!”
Towards the very end of the film, Salinger’s publisher informs him that numerous directors are pursuing the screen rights to Catcher in the Rye, all of whom Salinger rejects. “It’d never work as a movie,” he insists. It’s the most ironic line in the film.
Rebel in the Rye is available to buy and stream from today