Writing is not a spectator sport. To make a writer’s life interesting in a visual medium like the movies, a filmmaker usually has to focus on the eccentricity of the writer’s personality, or the drama of his relationships, or the historical significance of the times the writer lives in.
In Rebel In the Rye, filmmaker Danny Strong aims for all of the above in dramatizing the life of J. D. Salinger for the screen. He wisely sticks more or less to the time frame before and immediately following the creation of Salinger’s groundbreaking coming-of-age novel, The Catcher In the Rye. But Strong loses focus by stuffing his movie with too many incidental details, like an early draft of a novel with too much material left in that the author can’t bear to cut.
The main question Strong sets out to address is how a privileged college dropout with a smart mouth comes to create so iconoclastic and subversive a character as Holden Caulfield. It’s a good question, and the short answer is: practice, practice, practice. And in the earlier, most effective scenes, we see how this plays out, when footloose Jerry Salinger (Nicholas Hoult), having already washed out of New York University, startles his parents with the decision to enter the creative writing program at Columbia.
Always scribbling in a notepad, Jerry finds fiction “so much more truthful than reality.” At Columbia, he falls in with curmudgeonly prof Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), who also edits the literary magazine, Story, on the side. Whit tells Jerry he’s failed “to turn sarcasm into narrative” in his stories, and cautions him that “voice turns into ego if it overwhelms the story.”
These are the movie’s best scenes, as Jerry evolves from a cheeky kid picking up girls at the Stork Club into a person who discovers a passion to actually do something. Whit becomes his mentor, coaches him through the rejection process as he starts sending out his stories, and publishes Jerry’s first Holden Caulfield story in his own magazine.
But World War II interrupts his life and the movie. While he later says writing Holden stories saved his life in the war, images of battle and the liberation of a concentration camp so haunt him that he lands in a military psychiatric ward stateside, unable to write. It’s not until he comes across a meditation circle in the park and meets a guru who teaches him to remove “distractions” from his life to establish a safe place to write that Jerry is able to produce his Holden novel—equipped with a deeper understanding of life’s complexities (thanks to the war, so we’re told), and acquiring the reclusive habits that would make him notorious for the rest of his life.
Women are like brief pit stops in Jerry’s progress around the track, but they’re never around long enough to make much of an impact. Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), daughter of the famous playwright, Eugene, is an underage vamp he meets in a nightclub. Claire (Lucy Boynton) is a sophisticate who intrigues him by not fawning all over his book. But after initial flirting, followed by zero relationship-building, both women fade away, Oona reduced to a painful memory, while Claire’s only purpose, plotwise, is to disrupt his Spartan regimen with a couple of kids. I guess both women qualify as some of those distractions Jerry’s guru warns him about.
The final quarter of the movie starts to unravel, with Strong trying to introduce too many late-inning elements he doesn’t have time to pay off—disturbing fanboys stalking Jerry, the entire Claire subplot, Jerry’s rapprochement with his disapproving dad (Victor Garber), a German wife who disappears after a few frames—when all we really want to see resolved is Jerry’s relationship with Whit. We get there eventually, but not before a lot of the movie’s early energy is frittered away in trying to decide which story it wants to tell.
REBEL IN THE RYE
**1/2 (out of four)
With Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, and Zoey Deutch. Written and directed by Danny Strong. An IFC release. Rated PG-13. 106 minutes