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'Rebel in the Rye' is an affront to J.D. Salinger

I set a personal record watching "Rebel in the Rye." I have never before hated a film this quickly and thoroughly. It took me about 2 minutes to despise the film and my feelings never really changed despite the fact that there are truly fine actors in it and even a couple of things in it which aren't disgraceful.

What I hated right away was writer/director Danny Strong having the chutzpah to think he could invent a plausible conversational voice for dialogue to be spoken by this movie's version of J.D. Salinger, whose voice in his stories and classic novel "The Catcher in the Rye" isn't merely unique but is one of the treasures of world literature.

Simulate the words spoken by such a man at your esthetic peril, especially if the first scene in your movie shows us a randy, rich kid drinking in his late teens at a party and exchanging "hubba hubba" reactions with one of his buddies to the assembled girls. Here, I said to myself, is a portrait of Salinger painted by a tone deaf slob.

Salinger, in life, was famous for epitomizing a dedicated literary genius who wanted no part of the artifice of fame. Eventually he rejected publication altogether and kept a small army of lawyers and agents ready to sue every pretender to his life and work back into intimidated silence.

He couldn't stop Joyce Maynard from writing a book about her relationship with him because she did, after all, leave Yale after three years to live with him. Nor could she stop Salinger's daughter Margaret from writing a book about him (whose portrait Salinger's son Matt says he doesn't recognize) because, well, she's his daughter.

Otherwise, Salinger was delightfully successful in his life at shutting down everyone who got near him. You could simply call him a crazed control freak. But he was so much more. He was an absolutist in the modern world of art and fame who actually got away with maintaining that his art was all that mattered.

But, of course, nobody lives forever. Salinger was 91 when he died and, according to a few loquacious sources, close to completely deaf. That is no small fact. It may have even further isolated a man who chose isolation as a life strategy most of the time. It may also have indicated a slow lifelong process which, if true, would go a long way toward explaining why he didn't like being around people.

Anyway, a dead Salinger couldn't stop Shane Salerno from making his documentary "Salinger" (which looks like a masterpiece compared to this drek). And it couldn't stop this movie, where a living breathing Salinger is imagined by a fellow who previously gave us a script for a "Hunger Games" movie and for "Lee Daniels' 'The Butler.' "

His name is Danny Strong and he does two things here that are worth doing in a film that, otherwise, should never have been made: 1) he gives us an interesting, witty portrait of Salinger's early mentor Whit Burnett, editor of Story Magazine and 2) he gives you a suggestion of how important and traumatic Salinger's service was in World War II.

Kevin Spacey is so good as Burnett that, in a perfect world, 95 percent of the Salinger stuff would have been jettisoned, leaving a movie about Burnett in the same way "Genius" was about Maxwell Perkins' (Colin Firth) relationship with Thomas Wolfe  (Jude Law). No such luck.

A general understanding of Salinger's life as a soldier in World War II is crucial for anyone reading him. American literature is full of macho guys who wrote "war novels." None of them probably saw action as traumatic and horrifying as Salinger, who was on Utah Beach at Normandy and who "liberated" Nazi death camps. And all the time he did, he carried the unfinished manuscript of "The Catcher in the Rye" on his back.

An utterly amazing fact which can never, I think, be over-stressed.

The rest of the film is well-acted, wretchedly written rubbish.

David Shields once wrote this about pulling Salinger book off the shelves in the "3 a.m. of the soul" when sleep eludes him. "It's how his voice, to a different degree and in a different way in every book, talks back to itself, how it listens to itself talking, comments upon what it hears, and keeps talking. This self-awareness, this self-reflexivity is the pleasure and burden of being conscious and the gift of his work--which makes me less lonely and makes life more livable --lies in its revelation that this isn't a deformation in how I think, this is how human beings think."

Salinger readers always intuit this even if they couldn't articulate this as Shields did. No decent, respectful Salinger reader would have dreamed of making this movie.


Rebel in the Rye

1 1/2 stars (out of four)

Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Sarah Paulson, Victor Garber and Zoey Deutch in Danny Strong's biopic about J.D. Salinger, the reclusive author of the modern classic "The Catcher in the Rye." 101 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some language including sexual references, brief violence, and smoking.

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