Rebel In the Rye – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Based on Kenneth Slawenski’s biography, J.D. Salinger: A Life and a screenplay by Danny Strong (who also served as director), Rebel in the Rye examines enigmatic author Jerry D. Salinger’s early days as a struggling writer and the years directly following the publication of The Catcher In the Rye, a classic American masterpiece.

Nicholas Hoult and Kevin Spacey star in Rebel In the Rye. Photo copyright 2017 IFC Films.

Crafting stories, proofreading, copyediting, and other tasks related to writing tend to be intellectual pursuits that don’t particularly lend themselves to physicality or strong emotion. Therefore, it’s not too surprising that this story of the reclusive writer’s life – compressed here to include his early days in college all the way to later years after two children and a failed  marriage – comes across as more of a cerebral study of the man, rather than an engaging cinematic portrayal.

The Problems of J.D. Salinger

Viewers learn about some of Salinger’s problems as a young man, his writing motivations, conflicted love interests, and constant inner demons, but the story never fully engages our emotions or presents a three-dimensional character we can embrace. The film is interesting without being enlightening or inspirational.

Here’s what Rebel In the Rye does accomplish. We learn of the similarities between the iconic character Holden Caulfield from The Catcher In the Rye and his creator, J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult). After getting kicked out of other colleges for his sarcasm and bad attitude, Salinger finds a mentor (Kevin Spacey as college writing professor and Story editor, Whit Burnett) who believes in his writing, especially the Holden Caulfield character in a short story. (Spacey’s pithy depiction enlivens each scene in which he appears with a zestful sincerity lacking in other characters.)

Other than Jerry’s encouraging mother, his family doesn’t support his writing career. In fact, his father (Victor Garber) disapproves of most of his son’s decisions and behavior. Fighting in World War II has a devastating effect on Jerry that lands him in a mental hospital. His relationships with women mirror everything else in his life, including his publishing career: emotional detachment, inflexibility, and eventual abandonment.

Mysteries Remain Unsolved

Hoult exudes a certain charm as J.D. Salinger, despite his character’s unlikable qualities (such as calling people out for being phoney, refusing to accept critique of his work, and inability to forgive those he thinks betrayed him). Mental health professionals might argue that emotional abandonment by his father caused his anti-social behavior, and that his problems reached critical mass during the war, which led to post-traumatic stress disorder that stayed with him for the rest of his life. But those would only be theories based on the sketchy material provided in the film.

Why did J.D. Salinger really give up writing for publication after achieving worldwide fame with his novel? Why did he give up on his second marriage and two children to live alone in his secluded domestic retreat? Why did he give up on his close friendship with his mentor based on one misunderstanding? These questions remain frustrating unsolved mysteries in this biopic.

Rebel In the Rye

  • The true story of how reclusive writer J.D. Salinger achieved overnight fame with his book The Catcher In the Rye before abruptly deciding to end his publishing career.
  • Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Sarah Paulson, Victor Garber, Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton
  • Writer-Director: Danny Strong
  • Genre: Biography Drama
  • Run Time: 106 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some language including sexual references, brief violence, and smoking)