The predominant issue with Shane Salerno’s overly long, occasionally captivating and horrifically scored Salinger surfaces halfway through the disheveled documentary: J.D. Salinger, one of the most studied 20th century authors, is not all that interesting.
Running time: 120 min.
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, John Cusack, Martin Sheen, Tom Wolfe
Through the annals of time we’ve mythicized the man behind “The Catcher in the Rye,” amplifying his reclusiveness and rejection of fame that came with his writing success.
But really, his behavior is not all that abnormal.
Salinger was raised in an affluent family on New York City’s Park Avenue. By the time he was a teenager, he had waded through the superficiality of his upbringing and enrolled in military school. This taught him discipline and inspired him to write.
When he returned home, Salinger attended a myriad of colleges from New York University to Columbia. He began penning short stories in hopes of getting published in his favorite outlet, The New Yorker. Come 1942, he was drafted into the army, after originally getting rejected, and fought in World War II.
After the war ended in 1945, he returned to New York, galvanized by the disturbing battle he just spent three years in. Propelled by his experiences with war and women, he continued to hone his craft.
First came stories that were eventually published in the magazine of his dreams, then the book that irrevocably changed his life.
Salinger, soft-spoken and shy, didn’t know how to react to such sanctimonious praise. The author notoriously refused to speak to the press corps who were hungry for the next novel, and as the future would show us, there would be no next novel.
Unfortunately the film fatally falls into the camp that has mythologized the author for decades. The praise is shown in spades through Salerno’s documentary, where the interviews feel more like testimonials that quickly turn into rabid fandom.
Salerno captures ardent readers of “The Catcher in the Rye” confusing reality with folklore, determined to meet the legend they’ve created in their head. But it’s all just a legend, and Salinger shows us just that.
As the book became a cultural phenomenon, Salinger moved to Cornish, N.H. where he was not solely an artist who locked himself away in a writing shed, though he did that from time to time. He attended county fairs, had dinner with neighbors, met and socialized with his friends.
By all accounts Salinger, as depicted in Salerno’s documentary, was a perfectly normal human being with an aversion to the media.
And aside from his writing, that’s perhaps the most interesting element of J.D.’s story.
In many ways Salinger represents a relic of the past, a persona who consistently kept his private life private. He didn’t ask for the fame and fortune, it simply came to him. We turned the life of an incisive and masterful wordsmith into some fantastical fable.
Funny enough, “Salinger” paradoxically suffers from being both too long and too short.
After two hours of profuse praise from fascinating people like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Wolfe and Martin Sheen, Salerno’s sluggish hagiography is a bit hard to endure.
The moment the director attempts to look into Salinger’s morally questionable romantic life, he immediately backpedals – as if a critical examination of Salinger’s life would be sacrilegious.
Though that’s the issue with framing a documentary around Salinger. He’s a man who never wished to be examined, and subsequently never quite let anyone — even lovers Oona O’Neill and Joyce Maynard — put him under the microscope.
In the end, to know J.D. Salinger is to read his work. That doesn’t tend to be the way in which we glean information in the privacy-absent society we inhabit, but it’s certainly the way he wanted it to be.