Rebel in the Rye, which tells the story of author J.D. Salinger, falls into the pernicious trap that ensnares many a bio-pic: trying to present too broad a chronology in too limited a time. Utilizing an unwieldy structure that involves a flashback, writer/director Danny Strong attempts to cram about 16 years of Salinger’s life into 105 minutes. As a result, there’s a sense that important events are glossed over, relationships are truncated, and the central character becomes lost in the rapid progression of the narrative. In fact, the movie is so insistent on grinding forward that we never get a strong feeling for Salinger the person. He will remain as much an enigma to viewers of this movie as to those who don’t see Rebel in the Rye. The film offers little more depth about the writer than his Wikipedia article and considerably less than one would get from reading the semi-autobiographical The Catcher in the Rye.
The story picks up in 1939 when Jerry Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) enrolls in the creative writing course of Professor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), the editor of Story magazine. Whit becomes Jerry’s mentor and pushes him to become a real writer. Everyone, except perhaps his father (Victor Garber), recognizes his talent but Whit helps Jerry harness it. At the same time, Jerry flirts with Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), the debutante daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. Jerry and Oona’s relationship is chaotic and filled with emotional ups-and-downs so when she leaves for Hollywood to pursue stardom, it seems likely they’ll never see one another again. Soon after, Jerry sees a newspaper headline announcing her marriage to Charlie Chaplin.
One thing Rebel in the Rye accomplishes with some degree of proficiency is depicting the craft involved in Jerry’s writing. Representing an author’s mindset is difficult for a visual medium like cinema to achieve, since writing is an internal process, but Strong captures some of this. Jerry speaks of his most famous character, Holden Caulfield, becoming his "companion" during his time spent in Europe for World War 2 and how, once he returns home, it’s difficult for him to continue writing The Catcher in the Rye because thinking about Holden reminds him of the atrocities he experienced. This is by far the most compelling aspect of the film; it’s the only time we get something from Rebel in the Rye that doesn’t seem extracted from a Cliff Notes biography.
The post-war era is rushed through and attempts to tie up Jerry’s relationship with Whit are fundamentally unsatisfying. Not long after The Catcher in the Rye’s publication, Jerry becomes a recluse but the film is unable to effectively dramatize this phase of his life, instead offering a simplistic explanation for the cause: a combination of his growing fascination with Zen Buddhism and his need to escape distractions.
The performances are fine. Hoult brings more than a little of Holden Caulfield to his portrayal of Jerry. Irrespective of the age difference between the fictional character and his creator, the actor understands how much of the latter was in the former. The most "human" character is Whit Burnett; Spacey plays him with a mixture of rapier-sharp sarcasm (early in their relationship) and parental nurturing (later). Hoult and Spacey work so well together that the movie is inevitably better when they’re both on-screen — something that happens far too infrequently.
To date, there has never been a movie adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye because Salinger refused to sell the rights. It’s possible that those who control his estate may reverse this in the future. Until then, however, this is the closest we’re likely to get to seeing Holden on-screen. Unfortunately, in its quest to tell the whole story of J.D. Salinger, Rebel in the Rye speeds along too fast for us to enjoy the little things that would have made an oblique biography more satisfying. This chronology hits all the high points but leaves us longing to explore all the untouched valleys in between.