Rebel in the Rye, C
Rated PG-13, 106 minutes
"Rebel in the Rye" is the bland biopic that explores the early life and career of iconic author Salinger, responsible for one of the affecting novels ever written, "The Catcher in the Rye." Though well-acted and peppered with some compelling moments, interestingly enough, it lacks a strong sense of identity and rebellion purported by its silly title, giving as much insight as Salinger's Wikipedia page.
The film looks at the young life of author J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) and his relationship with socialite Oona O'Neill (Zoey Deutch), his experiences fighting in World War II, and his writing process for his seminal novel "The Catcher in the Rye," along with his relationship with his literary agent Dorothy Olding (Emmy-winner Sarah Paulson) and writing mentor Whit Burnett (Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey).
The likable yet dull biographical drama "Rebel in the Rye" is directed and written by writer and TV producer Danny Strong, of "Empire" and "Hunger Games" fame. Salinger was a towering literary figure whose story deserves better than this serviceable, well-acted drama, which seems more like the best parts of a TV mini-series, which is unfortunate given the impact of Salinger's best-known character, Holden Caulfield, of "Rye;" both Salinger (or as he's called here, Jerry) and Caulfield would've likely hated this film, which seems to go through the motions like every other biographical film.
The dashing Hoult ("Mad Max: Fury Road") is affecting as the young Salinger, whose war and other life experiences helped shape his distinct writing, which would later influence many other writers with his story "The Catcher in the Rye," which still sells hundreds of thousands copies over 60 years after its release. To no surprise, Jerry's writing career is the most interesting part about "Rebel in the Rye," which ironically feels too safe, lacking Salinger's bold, fresh voice.
To that note, the most frustrating aspect of the film is Strong's heavy use of an overused cinematic element: the voice-over narrator, perhaps in trying to copy "The Catcher in the Rye." Note to Strong: it doesn't work, and It's used heavily to over explain Salinger's other exploits: his war experiences, his spirituality (he was a Zen Buddhist) and his romances, which includes Oona O'Neill (Deutch), as well as some of his early influences, including his first literary mentor in magazine editor Burnett, played with charm by scene-chewer Spacey, who has some of the film's more memorable lines ("I can spot talent from a mile away," he tells a young Jerry, looking him in the eye).
In spite of its strong performances, "Rebel" tends to oversimplify Salinger's complexity, such as how the war affected him or genuine insight into his isolation, besides distrust of a few fans. In general, "Rebel in the Rye" simplifies too much: it's the Cliffs Notes version of the life of a complex, mysterious author who, to his credit, remains difficult to encapsulate on film.