JD Salinger is one of the most famous American authors of all time, thanks to the enormous success of his novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” which continues to sell 250,000 copies annually.
How many of us read “The Catcher in the Rye” in high school, either identifying completely with or despising the novel’s main character, Holden Caulfield? Did you wonder how Salinger seemed to so innately understand and fluently express all that shit you thought existed solely in your head? Are you looking for an explanation of his understanding, answers to questions posed? Well keep on looking, because “Salinger” is not going to help you out.
Jerry David Salinger became sort of an overnight idol after the publication of “The Catcher in the Rye.” But until his death in 2010 at 91, Salinger led an incredibly private life. “Salinger,” a documentary written and directed by Shane Salerno, attempts to shed new light on the secretive man.
The biopic was released in September to lukewarm reviews (and that’s putting it nicely). In his rush to destroy Salinger’s fortress of secrecy, Salerno created a sloppy, flat film that tries desperately to be better than it really is.
Aimed to expose and create controversy, “Salinger” is essentially a large middle finger to the late writer and his desire for privacy.
It’s almost funny how many interviews Salerno includes in his documentary. Countless war historians, writers, playwrights, actors and surviving loves of Salinger’s offer insight to the mysterious man in this two-hour film, which feels about a thousand years long.
Everyone interviewed in this documentary was aware of Salinger’s desire to remain out of the spotlight, yet as soon as the man died and an opportunity to spill the beans arose, they jumped at it. “Salinger” feels a lot more like an excuse to tell secrets than an opportunity to provide insight on the complicated man.
Repeatedly stressed in the documentary is the idea that Salinger was an absolute genius, “amateur perhaps but sentimentally connected.” All genius comes with a little crazy, and “Salinger” definitely exposes the man’s crazy side.
One interesting topic in the film is that Salinger’s obsession with innocence and purity continued outside the pages of “The Catcher in the Rye.” Former lovers expose the man as a bit of a cradle-robber, having a particular fascination for young and talented female writers.
One of these writers, Joyce Maynard, provides a lengthy look into the strange and somewhat disturbing relationship she and Salinger had. Her story is only one of many that unsettles the viewer. (But really, if JD Salinger had written you a personal letter praising your talent and wanted to maybe grab lunch with you, would you have said no? If you say you’d have declined, you’re a filthy liar.)
The documentary attempts to include insightful footage of the man, but the footage consists of the same bunch of pictures and a “never before seen” clip of Salinger during World War II. The man is taking flowers from a European woman and putting them in his hat. That’s it. There is nothing earth-shattering included in this footage, and the dramatic attempts to stress the importance of the images are a bit laughable.
The score is unintentionally funny, with soaring violins, tinkly pianos and intense, sweeping orchestras. It comes across as trying too hard, and the material feels as if it’s sucked dry of actual meaning.
Included in the film are some reenactments, done by a tall thin man in a dark suit typing furiously away at a typewriter or smoking with a dark and foreboding look on his face. The reenactments are a little silly and another failed attempt at drama. Salerno is attempting to suck up screen time, and someone should have taken him by the shoulders and said, “Dude, enough.”
An interesting aspect of the documentary includes footage describing the involvement of “The Catcher in the Rye” in several violent crimes, most notably the murder of John Lennon. This inclusion, while thought-provoking and a bit haunting, is only one of Salerno’s attempts to create controversy and perhaps smear Salinger’s name and the weight that it carried for nearly 60 years.
Despite the movie’s faults, it does provide a plethora of information on Salinger’s life and character, which is sure to interest any fan. For biographical reasons it is worth seeing, but be prepared to laugh at Salerno’s direction. The documentary is parasitic in that Salerno uses Salinger’s fame and mystery to sell his story, but what else was he supposed to do? Salerno’s talent (or perhaps lack thereof) certainly wouldn’t have gotten people in the theater. It’s phony. Holden would have hated it.
Speakeasy Rating: C+
Rated PG-13 for disturbing war images, thematic elements and smoking.