The enigma of J.D. Salinger gets another tweak in Rebel in the Rye

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      Starring Nicholas Hoult. Rated PG

      The enigma of J.D. Salinger gets another tweak in the awkwardly named Rebel in the Rye, an uneven biopic that will at least make you want to dig out your yellowed copy of Franny and Zooey.

      How Salinger came to write Catcher in the Rye, which has been alienating adolescents since 1951, is not actually as familiar as his subsequent radio silence; after 1965, he never published another word. His early years are analogous to those of chronological cohorts like Norman Mailer—that is, first-generation Jewish-immigrant sons with artistic ambitions forged in the fires of World War II.

      Nicholas Hoult—once the sweet star of About a Boy and more recently the wraithlike Nux of Mad Max: Fury Road—here plays Jerome David Salinger, called Jerry by friends. The Manhattan-born lad was expected to be a good earner like his father, Sol (Canada’s Victor Garber), a cheese wholesaler from Lithuania. Jerry’s WASP-y mother (Hope Davis, in a dark wig) supported his creative talents, and allowed him to attend a writing program at Columbia University under the direction of well-connected editor Whit Burnett—thereby allowing the movie to display its best asset: Kevin Spacey, changing it up as a rumpled, sharp-tongued, but ultimately self-effacing intellectual.

      When Spacey is around, the screen crackles, even when the homilies about “not letting your voice overwhelm the story” are too on-the-nose. Hoult’s New Yawk accent is variable, and he works hard to hold attention, generally succeeding, even if no one else generates much excitement in a tale that packs in a lot of historical incident on a limited budget.

      Before the war, Salinger had a tormented affair with Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), who ultimately left him for Charlie Chaplin—which is a pretty interesting way to get dumped. As a soldier, he participated in D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and the liberation of Dachau—all contributing to his PTSD, before they had a name for it, to the urgency of his writing, and to his ultimate seclusion in rural New Hampshire. These events are represented, briefly, and well-shot (if mostly in close-up). Other limitations may explain the absence of Jerry’s work trip to Vienna, just before the Nazis took over, and his friendship with Ernest Hemingway, in Paris, while the war was still on. (Jerry’s later discovery of an Indian religious guide is made unintentionally humorous by the casting of Bernard White, who plays a phony guru on Silicon Valley.)

      Even if the somewhat stiff movie doesn’t quite fulfill its promises, it’s an impressive undertaking for writer-director Danny Strong. As a memorably diminutive actor, he’s better known as Doyle on Gilmore Girls and Jonathan on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But he’s also the series creator of Empire, and wrote scripts for things as different as Lee Daniels’ The Butler, two Hunger Games movies, and Game Change, the HBO movie about Sarah Palin. Dude’s definitely got game.