Imagine you’re at a party, and you’re introduced to a wannabe male novelist.
Clutching a glass of whiskey, he will tell you of his plans to write the Great American Novel, and he will be serious. He will say that he always writes with bourbon, but he will not say that he lacks the discipline to meet deadlines. He will quietly fume if you have been published more than he has, because women are for adoring him, not having their own identities. He will tell you he considers himself a scholar of English literature, but not that he has never read Virginia Woolf.
He says Sylvia Plath is someone only angry women appreciate, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as he does, in fact, make you angry. He will not ask any questions about you, and if you say something like, “I’m a writer, too, actually,” he will interpret this as a request for advice, which he is all too happy to supply, chiefly in telling you that everyone should read Raymond Carver as a foundation for writing fiction.
You don’t write fiction, but you don’t bother saying so, because you are already so embarrassed on his behalf that if you open your mouth you know you are going to laugh. “I gotta go,” you mumble. You want to make a joke about reading Sylvia Plath with your angry woman book club, but that would mean continuing to speak to this person, and you’re old enough to know that it isn’t worth it.
Does this guy sound fun to you? If so, good news: This entitled, embittered, deeply privileged male writer is all over the insufferable JD Salinger biopic Rebel in the Rye. In fact, it’s less of a tribute to Salinger than to the guy in your MFA who wouldn’t know a realistic woman character if she was staring them in the face.
Speaking of realistic women characters: You’ll find none here! In the shallow world of Rebel in the Rye, women exist merely to adoringly crane their necks in order to get closer to JD (Nicholas Hoult). People of color exist to help him have a spiritual journey. The New Yorker agrees to publish his writing without edits, and a writing teacher believes in him resolutely, even though he’s basically an asshole whose talent is communicated on-screen by how many cigarettes he smokes in front of his typewriter WITHOUT EVEN WRITING ANYTHING.
I normally like Hoult, who here does his best, but his eyes look dead behind his obligatory brown contact lenses. As onetime Salinger girlfriend Oona O’Neill, Zoey Deutch spends the entirety of her time on-screen saying things like “You’re sooooo talented” in a high-pitched voice that is supposed to sound old Hollywood but comes off more Muppet Christmas Carol. The dialogue is awful, which is not an option when you’re making a movie about a writer.
Luckily, I watched Rebel in the Rye with a friend who was equally underwhelmed, and we made ruthless fun of it the entire time, much to the chagrin of those around us, who chuckled at the movie’s casual misogyny. The real shame in all of this, we decided, is that it completely ignores what’s actually great about Salinger, who’s in the literary canon for a reason. The Catcher in the Rye is a beautiful book that captures a specific WASPy ennui and existential dread that should be recognizable to anyone who’s ever spent time among repressed geniuses in New England. Or, you know, anyone who’s ever been a teenager. I love that book, but I’m not sure we need a biopic about its author. His work speaks for him, and its influence is already present in numerous movies. Two of my favorites are The Royal Tenenbaums and Igby Goes Down. Go watch them instead.