“There is nothing more sacred than story,” says the Columbia creative writing professor on the first day of class, and would that “Rebel in the Rye” had heeded its own advice. Kevin Spacey plays the professor, Whit Burnett, and Nicholas Hoult has been cast as the burning young talent in the back row, a kid named Jerry Salinger who uses his initials for a pen name. “What does ‘J.D.’ stand for?” a girl asks him. “Juvenile Delinquent,” he sneers back.
For about a half an hour, “Rebel” is a plush, reasonably juicy biopic that puts more emphasis than is usual on the nuts and bolts of creative work — many of Spacey’s scenes are straight-up lectures, and they’re a delight. But in trying to cover the full span of Salinger’s life up to the mid-1950s retreat from the public eye, writer-director Danny Strong (adapting Kenneth Slawenski’s 2012 “J.D. Salinger: A Life”) ends up putting quantity ahead of quality. The movie tries to tell the whole story instead of just a good one.
That first act might have even been that story, if Strong had trusted the material and expanded on it: a tale of an angry, arrogant, insecure kid who is humbled into honing his gift. “Rebel” starts in 1939, when Salinger is an unknown, coddled by his mother (Hope Davis) and scorned by his father (Victor Garber), a prosperous merchant who says things like “Meat and cheese have been very good to this family.”
The scenes with Spacey crackle — Hoult leans into the hero’s attractive obnoxiousness and the older actor responds with one of his looser, funnier performances — and Zoey Deutch is unexpectedly good as Oona O’Neill, the brittle, sad-eyed debutante who toyed with the young writer before throwing him over to marry the aging Charlie Chaplin.
The underlying theme of this section is that Salinger only found his voice by feeding his anger against all the “phonies” into a literary alter ego, a kid named Holden Caulfield who served as the star of the early stories and ultimately the 1951 novel “The Catcher in the Rye.” Before that breakthrough, though, “Rebel” has to get the author through World War II, whose traumas — Salinger was present at both D-Day and the liberation of the death camps — almost destroyed his spirit and his talent.
By then you realize that the filmmakers are ticking every incident in the life off a checklist rather than shaping a coherent narrative, an approach that leads far too often to the dreaded Artful Montage and scenes of the writer typing away while murmuring in voice-over “. . . it was a perfect day for bananafish.” We see the German war bride (Anna Bullard) who came and went; Salinger’s growing attachment to mysticism, meditation, and a plainspoken guru (Bernard White) who takes Burnett’s place as mentor; the battles with editors at The New Yorker magazine; the attentions of the needy young fans who drove Salinger out of Manhattan and up to New Hampshire; the wife (Lucy Boynton) who followed him there.
Each of these characters is given short shrift and then abandoned, and you start to mourn for the actors — Sarah Paulson deserves her own movie as the writer’s seen-it-all agent, Dorothy Olding. “Rebel” is honest enough about its hero’s flaws (including a passing nod to Salinger’s attraction to very young women), and Hoult works hard to humanize a man who became a cultural statue over years of reclusiveness. But you realize the director has bought into the myth along with everyone else, to the point where he thinks the life itself is all the story you need. That’s not art, that’s worship, and it’s what sent J.D. Salinger heading for the hills in the first place.
REBEL IN THE RYE
Written and directed by Danny Strong. Starring Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Zoey Deutch. At Kendall Square. 106 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements, language including sexual references, some violence, smoking throughout).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.