Movies about writers so rarely work that it’s a wonder anyone still tries to make them. Rebel in the Rye tries very hard to get inside the head of J.D. Salinger as he struggles to write The Catcher in the Rye. Solid idea; spineless execution. Danny Strong, in his feature directing debut, knows how to put a movie together. But his script is basically an overload of cliches that Salinger’s writing avoided like Kryptonite. Strong, whose TV writing is exemplary (Recount, Game Change), is doing a by-the-numbers biopic drawn from Kenneth Slawenski’s well received J.D. Salinger: A Life. The film follows Salinger (Nicholas Hoult doing his best) from 1939, when he takes a writing class at Columbia University taught by acid-tongued Story magazine editor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), to 1951, when The Catcher in the Rye is published and Salinger becomes a literary lion and then a famous recluse. In between, World War 2 happens, Salinger joins the army and suffers PTSD, gets married (twice that we see), embraces Zen Buddhism, moves to Cornish, New Hampshire, and deals with success by running away from it.
That these things happened is a matter of record. That they are dutifully trotted out on screen with all the excitement of a tech manual is a matter of acute disappointment. Hoult is basically asked to run the gamut from smartass to angsty, to be a life-imitates-art version of Catcher‘s Holden Caufield. Spacey fares better as the teacher turned mentor, mostly because Spacey can’t help being a livewire. Burnett tells Salinger that Caufield is too complex a character to confine to a short story and that only a full novel can do him justice. A viewer can’t help thinking that Salinger is too complex a creative artist to confine to a conventional biopic and that only a groundbreaking blast of cinema could do him justice. Rebel in the Rye is not it.