Friday, September 29, 2017

J.D. Salinger again -- this time in Danny Strong's narrative bio-pic, REBEL IN THE RYE

Great American writer (thought by some to be one, anyway) J.D. Salinger is back on screen again. He never seems to be away for all that long, what with a couple of of documentaries (1999's   J D Salinger Doesn't Want to Talk and 2013's critically reviled but actually pretty-damned-good  Salinger) and a number of adaptations of the guy's short stories, one of them unauthorized, and another (the first to reach film: My Foolish Heart) said to be the reason J.D. would never again let Hollywood near any of his writing, in particular any adaptation of his landmark and major novel, The Catcher in the Rye.

The above is by way of introducing the latest in Salinger-iana, a new bio-pic entitled alliteratively but foolishly REBEL IN THE RYE based on the biography of Salinger by Kenneth Slawenski, which has been adapted and directed by Danny Strong (shown at left).

On the plus side of this new film are some fine period detail and cinematography (by Kramer Morgenthau) and yet another commanding performance by Kevin Spacey. Is there nothing this fine actor cannot do? From playing singer Bobby Darin to that fictional/ memorable  President Francis Underwood to this latest gig, essaying Salinger's teacher/mentor, Whit Burnett (shown below), Spacey is consistently terrific.

Performance-wise Mr. Spacey is the main reason to bother with this too-by-the-book bio-pic. The Burnett character is by far the most interesting and full-bodied of anyone in the film. And that includes Salinger himself, played by British actor Nicholas Hoult, below, who can be very good at times but here is made to tow the line of mostly worshipful biography. Oh, the Messieurs Strong, Slawenski and Hoult may imagine that they're giving us the warts-all-all treatment, but most of the details they offer seem second-hand and all too typical of the telescoped storytelling found in movie bios.

So we get numerous scenes of the writer at his typewriter, having love trouble, war-time trouble, and post-war-trauma trouble, and the further along the movie goes, the more of a slough it becomes. In its most embarrassing scene, it even hands us Catcher in the Rye's famous where-do-the-Central-Park-ducks-go-in-the-winter moment, and couples it to Salinger getting mugged. (This may indeed have happened, but as shown here, it seems instead a kind of pandering to the book's many fans.)

The very able cast includes Sarah Paulson (above, left, and just fine as Salinger's agent), Victor Garber as his stern father, and Hope Davis as his loving and supportive mom. They're all as good as they're allowed to be, and along the way we get even more fine actors (Brian d'Arcy JamesEric Bogosian and Jefferson Mays) playing, respectively, famous literary folk such as Robert GirouxHarold Ross and William Maxwell, to not a whole lot of avail.

But then there's Mr. Spacey, who pretty much single-handedly makes the movie worthwhile. His Whit is initially stern, funny, ironic and finally encouraging and equally believable in each state. As his encouragement becomes more forceful, and may be turning into something like a very genuine-if-closeted love, Spacey's performance grows deeper, sadder and finally even desperate.

He's the emotional center and the great strength of the movie, despite its being "about" Salinger.

For his part Hoult touches all the proper bases, but can't bring to much life this man who seemed to prefer "not being there." (Hoult is also far too good-looking for the role. The late Jack Webb -- yes, of Dragnet -- would have made a much better visual Salinger. But of course he predeceased the author by about 30 years.)

From IFC Films and running 109 minutes, Rebel in the Rye opens here in Florida today, Friday, September 29, in Miami at the Regal South Beach 18, in Boca Raton at the Living Room Theaters, at the Movies of Delray and Movies of Lake Worth, and in Orlando at the Regal Winter Park.

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