Review: REBEL IN THE RYE (2017) 'Hoult and Spacey are memorable in the condensed Salinger biopic'


Joseph Friar

By Joseph Friar
Sept. 13, 2017 at 2:33 p.m.


Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Sarah Paulson, Zoey Deutch, Victor Garber, Hope Davis

Directed by Danny Strong 

Actor, writer, and producer Danny Strong makes his directorial debut with the biopic “Rebel in the Rye” based on the life of reclusive author J.D. Salinger.  The film features memorable performances by Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road) in the title role and Kevin Spacey as writing teacher Whit Burnett who published Salinger’s first short story, “The Young Folks”.  

Strong used the 2010 biography “J.D. Salinger: A Life” by Kenneth Slawenski as the basis for the film that begins with Salinger enrolling at Columbia University in 1939.  The relationship between the young writer and his teacher Whit Burnett provides most of the film’s memorable scenes thanks to the performances by Hoult and Spacey.  It was Burnett who first published Salinger’s work in the respected magazine Story after pushing the budding author to become a better writer.   

It’s hard to condense Salinger’s complex life into 109 minutes but Strong manages to work in Salinger’s stint in the military during World War II, his subsequent battle with PTSD (years before it was recognized as a disorder), a failed marriage, and the disintegration of Salinger’s relationship with mentor Burnett after his former teacher couldn’t get a collection of Salinger’s short stories published after the war.  Ironically, it was Burnett who drove Salinger to continue working on his masterpiece The Catcher in the Rye which went on to sell 65 million copies.  

“Rebel in the Rye” doesn’t spend enough time exploring Salinger’s interesting military duty and his hospitalization after the war.  Many memorable events that took place during the film’s timeline are left out so it feels like we are watching a cliff-notes version of Salinger’s life.  The concentration here is on The Catcher in the Rye as Strong focuses on the events in Salinger’s personal life that shaped the novel’s protagonist Holden Caulfield leading many to believe the book was autobiographical. After Catcher is published the film shifts to how the author refused to promote the novel and the confrontations Salinger had with crazed fans outside his apartment in New York which lead to his reclusive life in the hills of New Hampshire. 

The great supporting cast keeps the film entertaining, most notably Sarah Paulson as Salinger’s longtime agent and supporter Dorothy Olding.  The brief romance with Oona O’Neill (played by Zoey Deutch), daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill is included in the film and Salinger’s practice of Zen Buddhism is prominently featured in the film’s second half.  

If you go into Strong’s film expecting a complete Salinger biography you’ll be disappointed by the exclusion of many significant events from the writer’s storied life.  However, fans of Catcher in the Rye should enjoy the film especially the scenes that demonstrate how Salinger injected his life into Holden Caulfield.  There should have been a broader scope of Salinger’s life in Strong’s debut but the performances by Hoult and Spacey are enough to recommend “Rebel in the Rye”. 

(3 stars)

Opens Friday September 15 at the River Oaks Theater (Houston) and Regal Arbor 8 @ Great Hills (Austin)



Powered By AffectDigitalMedia