Nicholas Hoult and Kevin Spacey Catch the Spark of J.D. Salinger’s Life Story
DIRECTOR: DANNY STRONG/2017
“There is nothing more sacred than story.”
Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey) starts the new semester of his creative writing class with that thesis. His student Jerry (Nicholas Hoult) will absorb it and make it the thesis of his life.
Jerry—or as you probably know him, J.D. Salinger—will go on to write the 1951 American classic The Catcher in the Rye, but when our story starts in 1940, all he knows are disappointed dreams and a defeatist father. After his father reluctantly signs the check, Jerry begins honing in on his craft at Columbia, where Whit challenges him to become a real writer—that is, a writer who writes even if he doesn’t earn attention or a paycheck in return. Between rejection letters, severed relationships, World War II, and PTSD, Jerry believes more and more he may never get anything back.
Hoult and Spacey are, for my money, the best parts of Rebel in the Rye. Every actor in the film feels capable, but the rest of the cast covets their chemistry. Much like a real friendship between two stimulating individuals, their spark reacts to make both burn more brightly. Their banter is funny, and their wounds cut more deeply. The duo pairs so well that Rebel works best when they’re together. When they’re apart, the results are more mixed.
But the script could’ve taken some of the advice given to and from Jerry: Don’t over-explain. Don’t let your voice overtake the story. Most importantly, don’t be a phony.
The photography is lovely start to finish, both in composition and in color palette. Multiple exposures and short, quick cuts keep the countless number of scenes with Jerry behind a typewriter visually energetic. And not inconsequentially, Rebel understands the heart of the writer’s struggle: Writers must keep writing even when no one believes in their talent, even when they’re only opening rejections, and even when their mind betrays them during trauma.
But the script could’ve taken some of the advice given to and from Jerry: Don’t over-explain. Don’t let your voice overtake the story. Most importantly, don’t be a phony. Writer/director Danny Strong’s script suffers from some of the same problems his script for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 did. Weird pacing and stuffing in so much plotplotplot makes this biopic feel like a Wikipedia entry: “Jerry Salinger grew up in New York. In 1939, he enrolled in classes at Columbia University. Then in 1942, he was drafted into World War II. Then he suffered from PTSD and struggled in his writing for a time. Then he got out of his funk and wrote The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951. The book has since sold over 65 million copies.”
When the priority is packing in as much of a real person’s life as possible, well-regarded actors like Sarah Paulson are stuck with little more than plot-heavy dialogue, that feels—to use Holden Caulfield’s word—phony. Others, like Zoey Deutch and Lucy Boynton, can only stay on the periphery as one-dimensional characters because there’s no time for their development. Fleshing them out would have been a better use of time than clichés like The Family Around the Radio Upon the Announcement of the Pearl Harbor Attack or Protagonist Learns Life-Changing News on the Front Page of a Newspaper. These distract from the uniqueness of Salinger’s story, one that is intriguing start to finish.
That said, Rebel feels like just a skim across Salinger’s life, leaving the viewer wishing for more depth. A narrower focus would have let us dig into his friendship with Whit Burnett or give more definitive ways he rebelled besides his making“bananafish” one word. Salinger created one of the most iconic characters of the 20th century, and the adaptation of his life deserves to be just as sacred.