Some documentaries are an embarrassment of riches. “Salinger” is merely an embarrassment.
An ambitious but often laughably overwrought attempt to tell the life story of J.D. Salinger — author of “The Catcher in the Rye,” hermit of Cornish, N.H., literary beacon to generations of readers — the film proves mostly that first-time director Shane Salerno is far out of his league. Salerno, whose credits as a Hollywood screenwriter include Oliver Stone’s “Savages” on the high end and “Alien vs. Predator: Requiem” on the low, has set himself an impossible agenda: He wants to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth about Salinger while at the same time further inflating the pop mythology surrounding the writer of what the film calls “the great subversive anti-establishment book of all time.”
Understatement isn’t in Salerno’s lexicon, clearly. And while the filmmaker and his collaborators have done an impressive amount of research — even more of it is available in the movie’s companion book, a 700-page oral history — and while they shine a light on lesser-known chapters in their subject’s life, “Salinger” is told with the busy, self-defeating breathlessness of a fan.
This leads Salerno into a stylistic pomposity that he apparently believes is appropriate to Salinger’s greatness as a writer and 20th-century cultural totem. “Salinger” goes heavy on dramatic reenactments, some of them astonishingly ill-conceived. We repeatedly return to the lone figure of the writer, played by a generically handsome actor, typing away on a bare stage while scenes from his life play out on a screen behind him. When Salinger presents the manuscript of “Catcher” to his New York publisher, Salerno stages the scene in LA’s Bradbury building, a location over-familiar from music videos and movies like “Blade Runner” and “The Artist.”
A personal favorite: When the author retreats to the New Hampshire woods during the first flush of “Catcher” mania, we’re treated to a shot of the faux Salinger walking along a dirt road in what looks suspiciously like the Hollywood Hills. Carrying a log.
The overreach doesn’t stop there. Salerno adopts a hectic editing strategy that throws historical footage and talking heads willy-nilly onto the screen — he keeps returning to an early Salinger photo shoot for images of the writer variously “reacting” to developments in his own life — and has commissioned a music score that’s pure orchestral overkill. Straining for lyrical grandiosity and maximum pathos, the score alone is the antithesis of Salinger’s famed literary concision. It is, in a word, phony.
If you’re familiar only with the outlines of the author’s biography, “Salinger” has its uses. It’s one thing to read about his youthful infatuation with 16-year-old Oona O’Neill, the debutante daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill who eventually dumped Salinger to marry the much older Charlie Chaplin. It’s another to see photos that testify to O’Neill’s intense prettiness and self-possession. The film doesn’t connect the dots between her and all those worldly young girls in Salinger’s art and life, but it doesn’t have to.
“Salinger” is picky about which aspects of the author it chooses to highlight. Salerno is right to emphasize his subject’s World War II years: Salinger was in the thick of the conflict from the beaches of D-day to the gates of Dachau, and the experience led to a nervous breakdown, a doomed marriage to a German national, and a darkening in the work. More than “Catcher,” short stories like 1948’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” testify to a writer nearly undone by what today we would call post-traumatic stress disorder.
At the same time, the movie dances gingerly around Salinger’s attraction to impressionable and very young women over the long course of his life. Salerno brings on author Joyce Maynard to talk hyper-dramatically about her long-ago affair with Salinger — she has told these stories so often by now that the film can cut from word to word of the same sentence in different interview sessions — but while she says that she was hardly the only girl to get letters from Cornish, “Salinger” doesn’t follow it up.
In other areas — a section on the damaged young men who in the 1980s took “Catcher” as license to kill celebrities is marred by thunderous gunshots on the soundtrack — Salerno errs on the side of the tasteless. There’s an honest documentary to be made about J. D. Salinger and someday someone should make it, if for no other reason than that “The Catcher in the Rye” continues to speak so eloquently to those who feel they’re out of joint with the world and that somehow that’s the world’s fault. Late in the film, the notion is raised that Salinger, who died in 2010, at 91, imparted his own poetic narcissism to Holden Caulfield — the adolescent character whom the author always saw as an alter ego — and that Holden in turn imparted it to all those lonely readers. That “Catcher” is, in the end, a very beautifully written hall of mirrors. Screenwriter Robert Towne says more than he realizes when he says, “I thought [the book] was about me.”
There was more to Salinger than “Catcher,” obviously, and the big news, announced with much fanfare at the end of “Salinger,” is that the author’s literary trust will release five new works starting in 2015, including a World War II novel, a compendium of writing about the Glass and Caulfield families, and stories involving the Vedanta Hinduism to which the writer was by all accounts an early and enthusiastic convert. That’s a mark of how badly this documentary drops the ball: Salerno gives us no sense of what Vedanta Hinduism even is, let alone how it might have affected the writer’s life and work.
But “Salinger” is silent on a lot of things that matter and irritatingly loud on the things that don’t. It’s good and necessary to hear from such fellow authors as A. E. Hotchner and the late Gore Vidal, E. L. Doctorow and John Guare, but why celebrities like Martin Sheen, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Judd Apatow are here speaks only to Salerno’s Hollywood connections. And the less said the better about the montage of young readers holding up their copies of “Catcher” — including the college girl who says that Holden’s “such a rebel, I want to date him.”
Aside from a repurposed 2000 TV interview with daughter Margaret, none of the author’s family is heard from. (A sequence in which one of Salinger’s many stalker-fans re-creates his journey to Cornish helps you understand why.) The voice that’s missing, most glaringly, is Salinger’s own. Salerno can’t quote from any of the work (the estate won’t let him), so if you wander into this movie cold, it may seem like the sanctification of a ghost. Mystery clung to Salinger, much of it self-willed — he made sure he was seen as someone who didn’t want to be seen — and “Salinger” never once comes close to penetrating it. In its attempt to capture the man, the movie epitomizes everything in the culture from which he fled.
Editor’s note: Just prior to this article going to press, the Weinstein Company announced that the version of “Salinger” opening in Boston and other cities would be a “special edition,” with additional material and cuts. It’s possible that these revisions will improve the version reviewed here. But that’s asking a lot, even of Harvey.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.