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Sundance 2017: ‘Rebel in the Rye’ showcases Hoult’s maturity, but fails to correct Salinger’s legacy

Director Danny Strong (writer of Lee Daniels’ The Butler) gives us a well-acted, soundly-crafted product with the Rebel in the Rye. The film succeeds when serving as an inspirational dramatization of the writing process, but doesn’t adequately sell why we should continue to admire author J.D. Salinger for abandoning those who wanted to be close to him. Rebel in the Rye is a tightly-woven narrative of Salinger’s formative years, mixed with his biting words on modern existence from his work. Its insistence on sidestepping significant personal information about his true tendencies to coldly reject anyone who remotely crossed him, and to go after under-aged girls, is a missed opportunity to make a comprehensive biography about a recluse folk hero who was no saint.

A confluence of events, including being left by a flighty first love and the trauma of serving in WWII, lead up to Salinger polishing Catcher in the Rye into a best-selling masterwork that is still taught in schools to this day. That his writing is still an astute assessment of youth confronting fraud and compromise is never in doubt. The editing keeps with pace his furious words for the majority of the piece. Young Salinger is molded from an upstart scholar by Professor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey) into a cynical literary legend. Spacey’s professor is vivacious, encouraging — but underdeveloped. Salinger spurns fame, as it brings all manner of blood-suckers and distractions into his life, but being branded a genius also goes directly to his already over-inflated ego. Spacey’s emotional groveling for his former pupil’s attention feels hollow, as we know nothing of the caliber of his own writing or home life to put pity for him into perspective. Hoult’s commitment to character is something to behold. His broiling emotions when lashing out at those who don’t support him in exactly the way he wants are mesmerizing. Hoult’s eyes waver from disaffected, thousand-yard stares of distaste to a watery, simmering pain that he channels into his writing. His sense of paranoia is also affecting, as the specter of Catcher‘s Holden Caulfield follows him home in the form of obsessive and angry fans that seek his guidance in an alienating world.

Salinger’s rebel status in the movie is born mainly from his intellectual prowess, how the public connected to his work, and an outright refusal of public attention. Unfortunately, the title of the film and its repetitive dismissal of his wrongs against others is also flippant of his interest in very young women. Like the documentary Salinger, Rebel in the Rye laughs off and glosses over his interactions with girls who were neither physically nor mentally ready to be in an adult relationship. His misguided search for purity through youth and blind admiration could finally have been shown in a dubious light. Instead, it’s played for laughs as something all men do. Brushing off his proclivity for minors does a disservice to a full portrait of who the man was, no matter the towering accomplishment of his authorship. Although his second wife is rightfully seen as neglected, she hasn’t much to say throughout her story line — just an overall love for his persona and a bland concern for his absence. The roles of women are largely ornamental (his beloved mother as played by Hope Davis) and serve as fodder for Salinger’s angst. Sarah Paulson infuses some snappy dialogue as a literary agent without having to truly face his demons. We admire him for daring to speak the truth about how phony people are and how morally vacuous everyone has become, but we are left at a loss when he then applies sweeping generalizations about people’s motives to every single person who seeks to touch his life in a positive manner. Only at the very end of the film do we see Salinger retreat fully into himself, as he leaves public life. He wrote just to create — the fruits of which we’ll hopefully see in years to come as his estate releases them — but to continue to mythologize his cruelty as necessity or an artistic quirk is wrong-headed.

Rebel in the Rye still glorifies Salinger’s worst qualities and upholds the myth of the tortured but brilliant artist who shouldn’t be held accountable for being awful to others because his work is so important to society. This is proficient indie drama on the precipice of greatness, but it leaves the complicated, human figures of Salinger’s rise in the shadows to the detriment of a more complete history and a better film.

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