Biopics are often criticized in popular discourse for veering too far from the actual substance of a figure’s life, forcing the messy and complicated nature of a life lived into a three act structure that muddles fact with fiction and paints a personal growth that one only can achieve after years of living. This is a valid criticism, particularly when the fabrications overwhelm the apparent truth that these films are based on, but it’s also understandable why filmmakers think it necessary to develop biopic narratives into a conventional mold. The messiness of a life is hard to keep engaging for a film’s runtime without some sort of structure to keep the audience’s attention, and this is precisely where the J.D. Salinger biopic Rebel in the Rye falters; it isn’t that Salinger’s life is forced into an artificial mold, but rather that the events of his life as presented have no discernible arc to them.
The first half of the film is presented through the framing device of Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) writing to his old writing professor, Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), as he sits in a soldiers’ recovery asylum after World War II. Through this letter we are treated to flashbacks of Salinger’s time in college, his development as a writer under Burnett’s eccentric tutelage, and his struggle to achieve publication without compromising his unique voice. About halfway through, though, the film abandons the framing device so that we may explore Salinger during the years surrounding the publication of Catcher in the Rye, chronicling his spiral into reclusion.
The swiftly abandoned framing device is only one example of how Rebel in the Rye haphazardly assembles the pieces of Salinger’s life into the semblance of a whole. We spend the first half of the film watching Salinger learn to become a writer under Burnett, but then Salinger’s trauma from his time in military service resets that arc to essentially zero, forcing him to seek the meditative guidance of Swami Nikhilananda (Bernard White). There are rising actions and falling actions littered throughout the film without any sense that Salinger is growing from the events that affect him. He certainly changes from a naïve and egotistical young man to a jaded loner who treats writing as a meditative act, but that change comes about without ever effectively exploring Salinger’s personality beyond certain obvious observations.
This isn’t to say that Hoult’s performance is without merit; quite to the contrary, his character’s transformation throughout the film is studied and methodical, an appropriately gradual slip into bitterness. However, there isn’t much to learn about Salinger from the events portrayed on screen. There are allusions that Catcher‘s Holden Caulfield is a thinly veiled authorial self-insert, and as crazed fans come out of the woodwork to tell Salinger how much his work has spoken to them it causes Salinger to question his own sanity. This is an interesting angle that is never quite brought to a definitive fruition, just as Salinger’s development as a writer sputters into inevitability and his embrace of the hermit lifestyle acts as the film’s anti-climax.
All of this is to say that Rebel in the Rye is very, very boring. Hoult delivers an engaging performance, but the lack of tension, stakes, or a unified arc makes the overall experience a chore. Without doing too much research, it seems to this writer that Rebel in the Rye‘s faults lie in trying to be too faithful to events as they happened. While this is admirable, it’s also worth asking if this makes for a story worth telling as narrative fiction if it can’t adhere to fiction’s conventions or find a clever way to subvert them. This is what results from such a lack of inspiration, or at least an incapability of realizing one’s inspiration. For all its dependence on the truth, Rebel in the Rye comes across feeling like a big phony.