Unfocused Salinger a Disappointing Phony
Shane Salerno (screenwriter of Oliver Stone’s Savages, co-writing the Avatar sequels with director James Cameron) has been working on Salinger, his documentary about secretive The Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger, for over nine years. He has been somewhat secretly shooting it for the past six, interviewing over a 100 different people and going over copious amounts of materials, much of which has never been seen by the public at large, in order to construct his narrative. Following him from his time in military school, through his early days trying to get published by The New Yorker magazine, to storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, to the writing of his seminal work, to his New Hampshire seclusion, to everything else in-between and afterward, the documentary attempts to paint as full a picture as possible of the secretive man.
Maybe Salerno was too obsessed with his subject. This movie is overbearing and unfocused, using a sledgehammer to try and focus the audience’s attentions by diving into various aspects of his life only to leave the point being discussed dangling in the air like an ephemeral tangent that only reveals additional questions that frustratingly go unexplored. It tries to make sense of Salinger’s life and this was a man who went out of his way to allow his work to speak for itself, everything coming after that relating to himself left a purposefully obtuse mystery he didn’t want his readers to learn about. This documentary, irony of ironies, is a big, sometimes bold, oftentimes obnoxious, cinematic phony, everything building to a supposed “explosive” reveal that’s about as forgone and anticlimactic as they sadly come.
Not that various aspects of the film are without merit. Almost all of the stuff involving Salinger’s time as a soldier during the last year of WWII is mesmerizing, chockfull of valuable bits of information that grants insane amounts on insight into his writing, especially the short stories and, of course, The Catcher in the Rye. Much of the material regarding his obsession with becoming a published New Yorker writer is equally fascinating, as are some of the recollections regarding his many romantic entanglements.
But the movie is still nothing short of infuriating. Salerno brings up an interesting tidbit only to move onto something else a few minutes later, the documentary refusing to connect the dots in a manner that could help bring their meaning and shows how they all coexist together. The director loves pumping up the volume and emphasizing certain musical queues as if to say this particular moment is the “Single Most Important One EVER!” even though there are going to be a dozen more scenes like them coming later on in the film. It’s as if this movie is the boy who cried wolf but in celluloid form, and as such it grows increasingly tiresome as things progress.
“Don’t ever tell anybody anything,” says protagonist Holden Caulfield at one pivotal point of The Catcher in the Rye. “If you do, you start missing everybody.” It’s as if Salerno didn’t learn that from reading the book, didn’t understand what it was Salinger was trying to say. With this documentary he attempts to tell everything, looks to spill every secret by diving into every facet of the writer’s life. But he does so without appearing to understand how to put the pieces together in a way that might mean anything substantive. Salinger simply does not work, and as the subject of this mess appreciated brevity I’m going to leave things there and call it a night.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 2 (out of 4)