By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Ironic, isn’t it, that famous recluse JD Salinger would have such an invasion-of-privacy documentary devoted to him?
But that’s what Salinger is. And although it’s absolutely engrossing, it has many irksome elements to complain about, all kinds of failings that in retrospect reduce our admiration and gratefulness for it.
And yet… And yet.
While we’re watching it, we find the elusive central character so enigmatic, complex, and fascinating that we don’t mind all that much: that just a few photos must suffice, each displayed over and over again; the lack of any video or even audio clips of the film’s subject; the awkward and ill-advised dramatic reenactments; the lack of any reading whatsoever from The Catcher in the Rye or Franny and Zooey or any other of the author’s books; the overbearing and pompous score; the unabashedly sensationalistic approach; and the climactic revelations that nearly turn the whole film into one lengthy promotional announcement.
That’s a lot to forgive, even if some of it could not be helped. But we do it willingly, grateful for the existence of Holden Caulfield, the young protagonist of Catcher.
JD Salinger (his friends called him Jerry) died in 2010, at age 91. He was best known as the author of the enormously popular (65 million copies sold) and tremendously influential (for better or worse) teen-angst novel, and was always a man of mystery.
He ceased publishing in the ’60s but did not stop writing. And he has never allowed his major works to be filmed.
A privileged kid from Park Avenue, he attended Valley Forge Military Academy, enlisted and returned from World War II after storming the beach on D-Day and then liberating prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp, eventually suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
And he retreated to Cornish, NH for the next half-century.
A good deal of screen time is devoted to his love life, especially his fascination with very young women, which has certainly been documented before.
And, one thinks, he’d probably have hated this film as an overwhelming intrusion.
Although the film does hint at clues that perhaps his reclusiveness was the orchestrated stance of a micromanaging narcissist who doth protest too much.
Writer-director Shane Salerno — co-author of the just-published biography of the literal same name –- gained unprecedented access during his decade of research, during which he conducted a couple of hundred interviews with friends, family members, biographers, colleagues, writers (including Tom Wolfe, John Guare, Gore Vidal, and EL Doctorow) and celebrities who have been strongly influenced by his work (including Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Cusack, Danny DeVito, and Martin Sheen).
But sometimes the film itself begins to resemble the Salinger stalkers whom it includes and profiles.
At film’s end, the secrets to Salinger’s genius remain just that: secrets. Little if any information is presented that we haven’t confronted elsewhere at some point.
Still, we’re grateful for the quasi-narrative that all this data has been shaped into.
So we’ll author 2½ stars out of 4 for a comprehensive look inside (well, “outside” would be more accurate) the private world and personal demons of JD Salinger. The heavyhanded Salinger plays to our voyeuristic curiosity, grips us even as it annoys us, and succeeds in spite of itself.