PLOT: The life and legacy of author J.D Salinger, who, after receiving universal acclaim with “The Catcher in the Rye” became a virtual recluse.
REVIEW: J.D Salinger is without a doubt one of the most important literary voices of the last century. Who among us hasn’t read “The Catcher in the Rye”? It’s essentially a right-of-passage, and generations upon generations of young people have identified with its hero, Holden Caulfield. Despite its acclaim, or more than likely, because of it, Salinger became a recluse and never published another novel (although he published several short stories up until the mid-sixties). He’s a fascinating figure, beloved by both the counter-culture, and the literary elite. Salinger is for everyone.
Suitably, Shane Salerno’s exhaustive documentary on the man is exceedingly user-friendly. Whether you’re a Salinger devotee, or just someone (like me) who was fascinated by “Catcher in the Rye” after reading it as a youngster, there’s something for you here. Salerno’s documentary is a provocative portrait of a man with many faults (such as a predilection for extremely young women) but also a person who seems to have collapsed under the weight of his own genius. Or not.
Given that Salinger never set the record straight himself before dying in 2010, we’ll never know for sure how the man felt about his fame as an enigma, but SALINGER comes as close as possible to revealing his latter-day mindset. The movie is chalk-full of interviews with people ranging from his one-time protégé and lover Joyce Maynard (writer of “To Die For” and “Labor Day”- both of which were made into films), to his contemporaries, colleagues and more. The only real gap is that Salinger’s kids are absent, although his daughter weighs in through recent archive footage.
Surprisingly, SALINGER’s gotten a mixed reception critically, to the extent that the version I saw is a fresh edit courtesy of Salerno (and I’m sure Harvey Weinstein- who’s campaigning hard for the “best documentary Oscar”) with a lot of footage substituted or cut. This is one of the few times a movie in general release was pulled and recut (the last one I can remember is THE NEW WORLD), and the version I just saw is not the one that played at the Toronto Film Festival.
I have no idea how that version differed from this, but despite the hasty reworking of the film, it doesn’t feel choppy at all. If anything, SALINGER feels like an incredibly heartfelt portrait of a perhaps unknowable man. His life seems like a natural for the big-screen treatment, and Salerno’s very cinematic documentary would be a good jumping-off point for a biopic. While you’d think the stories of Salinger’s affairs, or the controversy that came up when copies of “Catcher in the Rye” were found on Mark David Chapman (killer of John Lennon), John Hinckley Jr (attempted assassin of Ronald Reagan) and Robert John Bardo (killer of Rebecca Schaeffer) would be the most intriguing, they’re not. Rather, the most absorbing part of the film concentrates on Salinger’s war years, where he worked behind enemy lines during D-Day, helped liberate Dachau, and almost went insane in the process.
I’m not sure what SALINGER’s critics were expecting from this, but it feels like Salerno’s film has been made to connect with the broadest audience possible. “The Catcher in the Rye” is something that can be enjoyed by a wide range of people, so why not a documentary on its author’s life? While it maybe suffers from a slightly over-wrought musical score, otherwise it’s extremely gripping stuff, and a fascinating way to spend two hours. Even if you think you know a lot about Salinger, there are tons of revelations here that are bound to surprise you, and we’re even left with the prospect of his literary career having an unforeseen second act. Who knows, there just may be another “Catcher in the Rye” buried in his archives and maybe we’ll even get to read it someday.