Film Review: Salinger

Hyperventilating literary detective documentary about the reclusive author’s wartime traumas and perfectionist manias tells a hell of a story but gets high on its own supply.

Amazingly, for the first hour or so of Shane Salerno’s juicy, literary-tabloid documentary, the quality and temperament of J.D. Salinger’s writing hardly comes into it. Salerno assembles a team of biographers and writers to tell the story of the promising but rebellious Jewish-Catholic kid who was kicked out of some of the best East Coast boarding schools before turning his hand to writing. When World War II began, he was a handsome short-story writer in his early 20s dating the gorgeous young Oona O’Neill, daughter of Eugene O’Neill and former girlfriend of Orson Welles. Still photos of Salinger from the time show him as a matinee-idol writer: soulful dark eyes, trimly tailored suit, cigarette brandished like a weapon.

By 1945, O’Neill had run off and married the many-decades-older Charlie Chaplin, and Salinger was suffering a nervous breakdown after enduring nearly 300 days of combat from D-Day to the liberation of Dachau concentration camp. Salerno interviews Salinger’s buddies in his army intelligence unit (an excellent assignment for any burgeoning writer), who remember him working on The Catcher in the Rye as they slogged through the bloody northern France campaign. One of Salerno’s talking heads refers to those wartime horrors as “the ghost in the machine” that haunts Salinger’s fiction, particularly quietly explosive classics like “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”

The postwar years are dealt with in a similar flash of activity: the deceptively cool short stories that popped up in the pages of The New Yorker one after the other, a comically off-base film adaptation of one of them, and then the bombshell that was The Catcher in the Rye in 1951. Just a couple of years after that, Salinger moved to New Hampshire, and published nothing after 1965 until his death in 2010. Glimpses of that isolated life are spotted only in interviews with friends and his troubling relationships with a number of teenage women, including interviewee Joyce Maynard, who infamously auctioned off Salinger’s love letters to her. It’s in the evocation of a war-traumatized Salinger turning into the closed-off and sometimes cruel narcissist, hiding out for weeks at a time in his famous writing bunker and ignoring his children, that the film finds its most dramatic, rewarding material.

Although Salinger contains several acute insights about the author’s psychology, its tendency to get as overly excited as the distributor’s heavily hyped publicity campaign sometimes cheapens the whole affair. It’s clearly a labor of love for Salerno, an action-film scribe (Savages, Armageddon) who reportedly spent nine years doggedly digging up material. But he teases out bombshell fragments about the possibilities of new Salinger writings with all the subtlety of a rocket-propelled grenade and resorts to laughable recreations with an actor who looks nothing like Salinger himself.

Salerno includes one encomium after another from writers and actors like Edward Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman about the impact of The Catcher in the Rye on them, and inserts a cringe-inducing PSA-ish segment showing teenagers the world over reading the book like some holy text. But his film never truly grapples with why this book about a grumpy 16-year-old wandering around New York still exerts such a vice-like grip on youthful readers. Even the troubling fact that the novel was claimed as inspiration by three different killers is given short shrift. Salinger is a little too busy dashing back from a gripping biographical study of Salinger’s life and work to drop in more boldface-type nuggets about Salinger the “Howard Hughes” recluse. The film is like an eager bloodhound that never manages to find the bone it’s looking for.