“Boy, when you’re dead, they really fix you up,” says Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the Rye.” That observation takes on a more unsavory meaning for Holden’s alter ego and creator, J.D. Salinger, in a fluffed-up documentary that sticks it to the already famously flawed author without providing much revelation.
Revered by 1950s teens and rapturous critics for bringing them the establishment-challenging, phony-loathing Holden, Salinger went on to cover-of-Time fame. It severely disagreed with him, so he shut himself off from society in a small New Hampshire town and stopped publishing in 1965. After that, he was in the news only when fans or reporters tried to smoke him out — and, more creepily, when Joyce Maynard wrote in her memoir of moving in with him when he was 52 and she was 18.
Salinger was a selfish husband and father who holed up in a writing bunker for months at a time. He was, if not an actual pedophile, a case of arrested emotional development who was attracted to teenage girls. But we knew all that, and retelling it against a backdrop of re-enactments set to ridiculously melodramatic music doesn’t make it more interesting.
Writer/director Shane Salerno (also co-author of a new Salinger biography) just unearthed a few previously unpublished photos, such as those provided by Salinger’s World War II buddies. Salerno may be forgiven for recycling photos a few times, given the scant store available.
But at times he seems to have an agenda as cranky as his subject, as if he’s punishing the author for not leaving more material to work with. He devotes too much time to an admirer who drove 400 miles to stalk Salinger, then got miffed when the author told him he was no counselor and had nothing to offer. The implication that Salinger should have felt at least a whiff of responsibility because three famous celebrity shooters (including John Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman) cited “Catcher” as an influence is a particularly cheap shot.
The documentary isn’t devoid of touching moments. After an editor from a publishing house that wound up rejecting “Catcher” mistakenly assumed Holden was crazy, Salinger supposedly fled the office in tears. Jean Miller, the then-14-year-old girl he met on a beach who is widely considered the inspiration for the story “For Esmé – With Love and Squalor,” is fascinating as she stoically recalls how he dumped her after they (legally, later) had sex.
While there are sound bites from Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe and E.L. Doctorow — who suggests Salinger played the recluse card as self-promotion — it’s telling that more opining time is given to Hollywood stars like Edward Norton and Judd Apatow than to fiction writers of the same generation. This senseless celeb-padding intended to mask the project’s thinness only makes it more painfully obvious.
Anyone hoping to glean new insight about the guy behind “The Catcher in the Rye” might as well wait to hear from the man himself. According to Salerno, Salinger’s remaining unpublished writings on the Glass family and other topics will be doled out piecemeal in 2015.