For all that J.D. Salinger believed film was for phonies who couldn’t read, Danny Strong’s ‘Rebel in the Rye’ is a fascinating insight into Salinger’s life before and after he penned one of the most acclaimed American novels of the 20th century.
Even the trailer captures the essence of Salinger, an enigma who drew in curious audiences and continues to do so to this day — with Strong’s vision at times as tongue-in-cheek as his subject’s own work.
However, the film itself is a delightfully surprising experience all on its own.
Each chapter of Salinger’s life can be easily defined through the passing of each act, as epic as a novel but perhaps with a convenience to the author’s chagrin (should he have seen the movie himself). Every scene is cleverly significant and often features some payoff and a full-circle theme, adding elements of Hollywood and convenience — but Nicholas Hoult, who plays J.D. “Jerry” Salinger, helps root them in the harsh reality the author himself was adamant about portraying in his writing. The payoff may not be what you expect. After all, true happy endings can be so few and far between. But for as realistic as Salinger insisted on writing his stories, his life was far more fantastical than most of ours ever are.
The wild, emotional roller coaster that was his love affair with Oona O’Neill? Check. The hugely successful bestseller to ensure his immortality? Check. The fact that he can hammer out page after page on a typewriter without being able to backspace and edit? Check.
Though Holden Caulfield was based on Salinger’s own story, there’s a duality in Hoult’s performance that speaks to the universality of the fictional character. Salinger’s self-centered and arrogant, full of unbridled sarcasm and barely warranted teen angst — but even so, Hoult manages to persuade audiences to root for and sympathize with his portrayal.
Alongside Hoult, the entire cast masters their roles. The two who stand out the most have to be Kevin Spacey and Sarah Paulson as professor-mentor Whit Burnell and publishing boss Dorothy Olding, respectively. Their characters offer their unwavering loyalty and support to Salinger, a foil to his parents — and seemingly become to him what he believed his parents could not. The dynamics are intriguing, never stagnant, and what depth Spacey and Paulson are able to bring to their characters and the film in their short amount of time onscreen is impressive.
Favorite line: Any said by Kevin Spacey.
As a writer, this is a must-see. Whether you piece together poems in your spare time or you’re actively crafting the next great American work, the struggles are real and relatable. Sometimes you’re overflowing with words, barely able to keep up with yourself. Sometimes you can barely even manage to look at a blank page without feeling completely discouraged. Sometimes it just feels good to rip up a piece of bad writing. Most of all, you know what it is to seek meaning in the simplest of moments, to find inspiration throughout your everyday life, to know the satisfaction when you finally translate that wonder onto a page with the perfect words. This film encompasses that emotional journey better than most stories about writers, real or otherwise.
‘Rebel in the Rye’ is…
Much like Salinger’s work, the movie allows you to read between its lines and take from it what you will. While the man himself might have detested the mere thought of a biopic, Strong’s is a remarkably good one — complete with an enormously talented cast, a beautiful aesthetic (sets and costumes and everything in between), and Bear McCreary at the helm of the score. There’s a sense of a closure throughout the third act, but Strong opts for an open-endedness to carry it through to the credits, staying true to Salinger’s insistence that “it doesn’t end that way,” no nice ribbons all tied up in neat little bows.
It’s just life, and there’s something profound in the story of J.D. Salinger’s that shouldn’t be missed by writers and everyone alike.
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