'Salinger': Not much more than hype
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"She was free of clichés and banalities," a talking head in this documentary says of Oona O'Neill, a young woman with whom budding author J.D. Salinger had a passionate affair. Would that one could say the same of this overbearing, self-important self-proclaimed exploration of the life and work of one of America's most celebrated and secretive authors.
Because it wants to tell itself it's about art more than money, "Salinger" the movie (directed by Shane Salerno) pauses only briefly to note that J.D. Salinger's novel "The Catcher in the Rye" has sold about 60 million copies since its 1951 publication, and continues to be bought at a rate of something like 250,000 copies a year. Were this not the case, and had Salinger made himself more publicly accessible after his first taste of admittedly way-above-average literary fame, this movie would likely never have been made. But retreat Salinger did, in large part because he deemed himself, or aspired to be, as pure of heart as his legendary "Catcher" protagonist Holden Caulfield, and that retreat has enabled any number of former friends and know-somethingish scholars and/or groupies to speculate on his ... Salingerness.
Salerno uses a lot of arty semi-dramatization, using an actor to depict Salinger on an empty stage, looking at documentary footage of the writer's life, clearing a typewriter table of manuscript pages to connote writerly frustration, that sort of thing. (Amusingly, during the section chronicling the publication history of "Catcher," Salerno uses L.A.'s famous Bradbury Building interior to represent the office building of VERY New York publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)
Overpowering music underscores every "dramatic" point, and an array of Very Famous People and Acknowledged Authorities are trotted out to articulate obvious and sometimes specious observations concerning literature, fame, the writing process and so on. "He understood something about American culture that the culture didn't understand," says actor Martin Sheen (whose direct connection to the author is not revealed to the viewer), who I suppose was himself unaware that he was participating in a project that in its own way is a symptom of said culture's diseased celebrity worship. "After their first child, Margaret, was born, the nature of Salinger's relationship to his wife changed," Salinger biographer Paul Alexander observes in one of the film's many, many "Duh" moments. As it happens, the change was such that it destroyed the marriage but for much of the movie's time, events that many, many people went through are treated as very, very special because they were experienced by J.D. Salinger. His wartime years are indeed crucial in terms of the personal toll they took on him and in his development as a writer, but by a certain point you get the feeling the movie would like to give Salinger credit for the whole liberation of Europe.
Once Salinger retreats from fame, the movie takes on a more resentful tone, meticulously chronicling every occasion on which he deigned to speak to a fan and then having one or two commenters (usually Alexander, who speaks of Salinger in bitter tones one might apply to a particularly unpleasant experience with a former lover) chime in with, "If he was REALLY that fame-averse, why'd he do that, huh, huh?" or words to that effect. It's as if Salinger was the first person in recorded history to maybe want to have things both ways. Truth to tell, his correspondences with younger women in his middle age do strike one as a little weird. Creative people are often troubled in some way, I hear. And while I did learn a few things here about an author for whom I have a moderate admiration, I also was annoyed at being teased within the movie's narrative itself about revelations that don't ultimately come. The sequence dealing with John Lennon murderer Mark David Chapman's citation of "Catcher in the Rye" seems to be leading up to delivering a direct reaction to the killing from Salinger; instead, we get an anecdote in which the author ruefully admits regret over creating Holden Caulfield ... an anecdote set six months before Lennon's killing. An uncomfortable hybrid of an "American Masters" tribute and a dirt-dishing TMZ special report, "Salinger" ends up being more deeply phony than anything that repelled poor young Holden in the first half of the 20th century. Progress!
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.