MRR Review: "Salinger"

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An unprecedented look inside the private world of J.D. Salinger, the reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye
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MRR Review: "Salinger"

Rating: PG-13 (disturbing war images, smoking, and thematic elements)
Length: 120 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 5, 2013
Directed by:Shane Salerno
Genre: Documentary

J.D. Salinger was one of the most important American writers of the early twentiethcentury and led a life of mystery after his work acquired popularity. The reclusive author died in 2010, and the movie teases audiences with the potential releases of several novels written during his fifty-year hiatus from the public eye. What could have been a too-brisk walk through the life of one of our most intriguing authors turns into a true biography under the spell of Shane Salerno, who spent nearly a decade interviewing Salinger's colleagues and friends.

Salerno works magic onscreen, putting the best tricks of illusion to best use. An often thundering score paired with the regular juxtaposition of mixed media on film creates a journey out of the famed author's life. The man who led millions to tote copies of "Catcher in the Rye" from place to place throughout their lives resurges through the machinations of a talented, gutsy filmmaker who enjoys an obvious connection to his work. Though Salinger's son, Matthew, discredits any chance that people in their inner social circle contributed to the film, Salerno packs the picture with facts, details, and demonstrations of the effects of the writer's work.

As biographies go, "Salinger" is as easily as odd as "The Basketball Diaries," though nowhere near as sensational. Then again, Jim Carroll is best known for his autobiography, a tale of deviance and debauchery that thrilled a stalled generation to its bones. Salinger, on the other hand, has moved generations with his literary voice. He breeds a familiarity with his readers that leaves them feeling like close friends with the same take on life's pressing issues, at least for those aging out of adolescence.

His life story promises audiences so much more than a child tossed among the waves of rebellion or a look at one of today's hottest actors playing the main role. "Salinger" isn't a based-on-truth drama sporting A-listers as the author and his friends and relations. It's a film based in fact, retold by real people. Cameo appearances by Martin Sheen, Edward Norton, John Cusack, Tom Wolfe, and other Hollywood notables are as close to acting as the movie gets, and it has an impressive number of clips of the real people involved in Salinger's life. Strangely enough, several of the people appearing in the movie barely recalled being interviewed for the project, a testament of the amount of time Salerno has invested in it.

Jerome David Salinger came into the world on Jan. 1, 1919. He lived just a hair over ninety-one years and spent the last fifty-seven years taking comfort in the comings and goings of Cornish, New Hampshire. Stories circulate that he dealt with a crippling fear of the public and a dread of unwanted attention garnered by his 1951 classic, "The Catcher in the Rye," which inspired a great deal of conflict both in society and in the lives of individual fans who took the book's irreverence toward acceptance and respectability too close to heart. Audiences eagerly awaited the release of Salerno's works on the author.

One of the main draws of "Salinger" was Salerno's insistence that he held some juicy morsel of secret knowledge hostage, ready to release it only on film. From never-before seen photographs to information on up-and-coming posthumous publications of the author's later work, "Salinger" delivers the goods. The biography gives fans a glimpse at the life the object of their affection held so privately. Tormented by the intense scrutiny that came with the popularity of his first published book, J.D. Salinger escaped first to New Hampshire and then into Buddhism to avoid responsibility for how fans would twist his work. "The Catcher in the Rye" would be named as the basis for multiple acts of horror and even more lives wasted on drugs and crime.

While the persona of Holden Caulfield, the novel's protagonist, was largely autobiographical, it was also supposed to serve as a warning of sorts. Instead, as much as readers felt they'd connected with Salinger, certain readers felt he'd encouraged them to grow and change in ways that led them into ruin. It was a curious reaction that Salinger had no stomach for, and it is highlighted through the story of one particular fan in the film. This conundrum absolutely had an impact on Salinger's lifestyle later in life and may be the reason why so few of his works following "The Catcher in the Rye" were published.

It's clear that "Salinger" will answer many popular questions, as well as raise a few of its own. The question is whether audiences will be able to recognize the author's real message. It's possible that Salerno's work will suffer a similar fate to his subject's and that his movie will be twisted and tangled to meet the expectations of the public.

Rated: 3 out of 5