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Rebel in the Rye (9/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime 108 minutes.


Like Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, writers whose writing never really grabbed me (except for Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” and “A Movable Feast” and his short stories), author JD Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) wrote only one readable book (for me, that is), “Catcher in the Rye” published in 1951. Nonetheless, that was a classic that was worth reading. But what makes him like Hemingway and Fitzgerald is that his life story is more interesting than his subsequent published works. Everybody knows Hemingway’s active life and marriages and Fitzgerald’s battles with booze and his troubled wife, and they also know how Salinger lived most of his life after publication of ‘Rye as a recluse.

This film tries to explain why he ended up that way. It starts with the story of his falling head over heels in love with teenager Oona O’Neill (Zooey Deutch), when she was 17 and he 22, and how devastated he was when he discovered after he went to war and World War II that she had run off at age 18 to marry Charlie Chaplin, age 54, a marriage that lasted through the decades and produced eight children.

Much of the film is set in New York City circas 1939–51. The production design in re-creating the city and the Stork Club and the dress of those years is excellent. The only relatively jarring note is the recreation of the offices of the magazine The New Yorker. They are shown as atmospheric and wood paneled, when in fact they were stark and white and downscale. But that’s a minor criticism.

The acting is very good throughout. Hoult represents Salinger as a charming man about town type when he meets Oona. I have no idea how accurate this is. If it’s accurate, his transformation into a hermit is truly remarkable. Oona O’Neill was one of the most beautiful women of her generation and Deutch is a good choice to play her. Kevin Spacey gives his usual fine performance as Whit Burnett who was Salinger’s first champion and was cruelly dumped by Salinger. Sarah Paulson plays Salinger’s tough as nails literary agent, Dorothy Olding, spectacularly.

Writer-director Danny Strong has created a compelling portrait of the elusive Salinger that had me mesmerized.