Review: Salinger

“Grand. There’s a word I really hate. It’s a phony. I could puke every time I hear it.” 

         – J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

And no movie may be more thoroughly convinced of its own grandness than Salinger, a documentary from director and J.D. Salinger biographer Shane Salerno that exploits the reclusive author’s desire to live an unremarkable life in an apparent effort to indulge in cheap melodrama and sell books… Salerno’s and Salinger’s alike.

The tacky thriller score, the “dramatic” reenactments of interactions with publishers, and the greatest embarrassment of all, repeated images of “Salinger” typing on stage, his life playing out on the big screen behind him as he click-clacks away and smokes and looks very, very serious… that’s about as phony as filmmaking gets, and it’s all in the service of a life that was dedicated to decrying phoniness at every turn.

There is a reason that Salinger never allowed anyone to make a movie of The Catcher in the Rye, or any of his stories for that matter after the 1949 dramatization of Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut, My Foolish Heart, so infuriated him. Whether he was right to do so is irrelevant, because Salerno’s Salinger argues that he was. Salinger sides with the author, claiming that his work was too precious and genuine to be bastardized by Hollywood, whilst simultaneously adapting the author’s actual life story into cheesy pap, carving its delicate tale with only the bluntest of cinematic tools.

Salinger includes interviews from many who knew the author personally: on the front lines in World War II, inspiring his greatest works and even loving him intimately. These people feel genuine, although they are often apologetic for the author’s faults and usually intercut with phony reenactments with no particular reason to exist, other than to inflate the subjects’ words with artificial “grandeur.” Often poorly-filmed “grandeur” at that. The stories are informative, but not much more so than you might find in a well-researched episode of “Biography.”

And yet Salinger also spends a lot its time conversing with J.D. Salinger fanboys who visibly get off on the reclusive author’s mystique, recounting tales of how they “got Salinger” on camera, or spoke to him briefly and unsatisfactorily in the driveway of his New Hampshire home, or got “close” to Salinger but only by proxy. This mystique was doubtless created when the author himself publicly eschewed publicity, and there is an irony there worth exploring, but Shane Salerno’s film uses these subjects to perpetuate the larger-than-life image that the author claimed (at least) that he never wanted.

After the documentary subverts (and some might reasonably argue perverts) the legacy that Salinger wished to leave behind – a legacy described and largely supported within the film itself – at the end it announces dramatically [Spoiler warning; although hiding a simple press release behind a ten-dollar ticket price doesn’t much make one want to closely guard Salinger‘s so-called “secrets,” which are already onlinewhich J.D. Salinger books will be published posthumously in the next few years, and what they are about, with nary a spoiler warning to be found, incidentally. [End spoilers. See? It’s that easy.] And so the life of an author who gave no interviews, and explicitly asked to not even have his picture included on copies of his own books, feels now like it has been transformed into a two-hour-plus commercial that Salinger’s fans are expected to pay to see.

As such, Salinger winds up feeling odious. Regardless of the filmmakers’ intentions – which may have been earnest – it plays like a cheap marketing stunt that, no matter how much factual information it may contain, reeks of hypocrisy at every turn.

And we all know how much J.D. Salinger loved hypocrisy.

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline’s Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.