Rebel in the Rye

Given the notorious nature of his reclusiveness, any biopic about the late J.D. Salinger is bound to include its share of speculation. However, Rebel in the Rye unintentionally makes the argument that the author isn’t as compelling as his work.

Even as it focuses on the troubled writer’s life and work prior to his disappearance from public life, this effort to illuminate his formative years provides only mild insight into his artistic process, and salutes his tormented brilliance without offering much depth beyond the mystique.

The film attempts to showcase the brash, outgoing side of Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) from his younger years, set against the backdrop of World War II and his time as a student at Columbia University — both of which were influential in shaping his career.

As a student, he takes a writing class taught by Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), the editor of a literary magazine who becomes his mentor after spotting his talent yet being unafraid to criticize the stubborn Salinger, then known as Jerry, about his short stories.

He later serves in the Army and fights in Europe before returning home a changed man, and not just because of a trembling hand that inhibits his ability to write. His experiences on the front lines correspond with a series of rejections from potential publishers for his writings.

That’s when his various neuroses and insecurities emerge, as Jerry gradually morphs into a bitter and disenfranchised outsider over publishing battles, unrequited romance, and lingering wartime trauma. He distances himself from his disapproving father (Victor Garber), his ex-flame Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), and even his longtime agent (Sarah Paulson).

The film marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Danny Strong (The Butler), who also adapted the script from Kenneth Slawenski’s biography.

The versatile Hoult manages to generate moderate sympathy during Salinger’s downward spiral. And as he sarcastically dispenses pearls of wisdom, Spacey conveys a charisma that the film as a whole is lacking.

Ultimately, the film invites viewers to draw art-imitates-life parallels between author and character, which only illustrates that Caulfield is more intriguing than Salinger. It’s doubtful either of them would approve of this overly slick and sanitized portrayal.

“I’ve always found fiction so much more truthful than reality,” Salinger explains. The film unsuccessfully tries to have it both ways.


Rated PG-13, 109 minutes.