REVIEW – “Rebel in the Rye” Makes Captivating Portrait of Salinger, Still Buries Itself Deep in Grass

by Joe Hammerschmidt

I must admit openly: In seeing the name Danny Strong pop up as the writer/director of what has turned out to be only his first feature effort, Rebel in the Rye, I genuinely forgot he was ever the genius writer who gave TV its largest flavor-of-the-month with Empire. More notably, in my opinion, his experience as a film writer leaves more to be desired (Mockingjay, The Butler, Game Change). Still, finally taking the leap up to director of his own written work makes for a rather jarring transition. The writer’s eyes are still finely tuned to wrap the viewer around a significant segment of our shared culture, whether it be politics, post-apocalyptic death games, or right now, the shrouded history of reclusive author J.D. Salinger.

Nicholas Hoult portrays the young upstart Jerome, just starting college at Columbia at the height of WW2, and studying in the world of writing under the tutelage of Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey, our effortless MVP). His sights are aimed high, yet he still must learn in the hardest way imaginable how tough it really is to break into the business. His doting father Sol (Victor Garber) keeps telling him, yet poor JD just never listens to reason. It’s so much that reason as a valued virtue, coupled with the inspiration he finds in his daily life does come back to haunt him while enlisted during the war after Pearl Harbor.

Coming home, the man does find success in publishing what would be his most renowned work, the legendary Catcher in the Rye. To the chagrin of his parents, the positive buzz of stalwart agent Dorothy (Sarah Paulson), and despite working past a messy breakup with playwright’s daughter Oona (Zoey Deutch), JD experiences the joy, and also the commitment that comes with being a “published author” vs. “an author that just writes.” If there were two things Strong feels most comfortable with, it’s putting such an existential conflict deep into the foreground, and putting capable actors up to the challenge of expressing the conflict’s intents.

Amidst his commitment to the now-superior tangent of the X-Men film verse, Hoult is at his most relaxed when the work is more dramatic, while still less demanding. Playing Salinger in all his darkest diatribes still leaves him with a certain amount of space to just breathe, and to sink into the part slowly, not just fall in and hope he can stick. Completely shutting oneself from the world and going full-recluse is never easy, but Hoult does make it look as such without hesitation, even with the runtime running too short to cover all of dear Jerry’s struggles in greater detail. Spacey’s role of over-caring mentor does border on the extreme, where at points the character devolves into your basic “dissolute drunk who once had lofty goals of his own.” Now more than ever, Spacey is still welcome to make any film better; doesn’t mean the character would feel as welcome in your home for dinner.

The rest of the film and its remaining moving parts, unfortunately, are pushed too far back for anyone to sink their teeth into. Most period films barely can keep its elements running synchronous, and Rebel is no exception. DoP Kramer Morgenthau creates a myriad of grounded images around the splendor of upstate New York, but that’s as far as the real beauty goes. Strong is his own victim of time management, as his own script, based on a Kenneth Slawenski biography, fails to translate to screen at multiple points, often wondering whether the book would’ve been a better substitute. Scenes either take too long or end too quickly, the pacing is inconsistent, and the acting unable to stay on track.

Rebel in the Rye, as a simple film doesn’t completely buckle on its faults; there are plenty of quality moments that keep the film watchable, specifically Hoult and Spacey, and their shared flawed dynamic between teacher and student, as well as Ms. Paulson, who could still light up a room on her quirks alone. Anyone expecting a more well-rounded biopic should not get all their hopes up, with a host of inconsistencies plaguing what would’ve been an otherwise complete story. Not knowing enough about Salinger would not be a problem, either way, as the man’s raw nerve and how it is exposed throughout his true claim to literary fame is left open to enough interpretation. Do consider reading up first anyway, and judge for oneself who got more of the facts right. (C-)

Rebel in the Rye opens in Seattle this weekend; Regal Meridian, AMC Dine-In; rated PG-13 for some language including sexual references, brief violence, and smoking; 106 minutes.