Danny Strong’s Rebel in the Rye has been pretty much torched by critics who don’t want to tolerate the film’s overt mediocrity. And this sameness, this middling nature, is the film’s greatest sin, even if it doesn’t make for as awful a film as has been reported.
Most of the film’s problems are caused by falling into the trap so many biopics find themselves wallowing inside of — taking too much of an overview of their subject’s life, while the totality of the thing lacks any real focus or impact. In the case of Rebel, the story of famously reclusive author J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult, X-Men: Apocalypse) should have enough material to build on. But Strong, who’s only directorial experience is television, wants to tell the whole story and, in exchange, tells very little.
The film follows what would make up the arc of Salinger’s public career as a writer, from a smart-ass college kid with talent and ego who wants nothing more than to be published in The New Yorker, to a World War II vet who storms the beaches of Normandy, to the troubled veteran who finds himself a sudden literary phenomenon. All of this is building toward — and perhaps attempting to explain — Salinger’s reclusiveness and retreat from the public sphere.
The problem is that none of this as a whole makes for a very engaging narrative arc, instead simply feeling like an attempt at piecing together the facts of Salinger’s life. Any of these episodes in the writer’s life perhaps could have made a greater movie if examined and fleshed out. And while no aspects of Salinger feel shorted or skimped over, exactly, none of it feels coherent. It’s all a bit too episodic, which makes sense as a telling of a person’s life but doesn’t have the power or emotion, in this case, to truly work.
Most of the film is told either through Salinger’s creative struggles and desires to become a true artist or via the lens of his often complicated relationships. There’s his father (Victor Garber, Self/less) who wants his son to lead a more practical life and his tumultuous romance with Eugene O’Neill’s daughter Oona (Zoey Deutch, Everybody Wants Some!!). But these interests come and go throughout the film, with his mentor/mentee friendship with his college professor and editor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey) is the only one that truly frames the movie.
The problem, however, is that this deep relationship also feels sketched and too often forgotten, yet another problem with the amount of ground Rebel wants to cover. By itself, none of these issues make the film unwatchable, but it does make it intensely forgettable. Rated PG-13 for some language including sexual references, brief violence, and smoking. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse.