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‘Salinger’ documentary brings reclusive author out into the open


The Weinstein Co. presents a documentary directed by Shane Salerno, based on the book by Paul Alexander. Running time: 129 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for disturbing war images, thematic elements and smoking). Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre, Lake Theatre 7 and Gurnee Mills 20.

Updated: October 21, 2013 6:03AM

This review does not reflect changes made to the film this week after its earlier opening in other cities.

As many an early review of “Salinger” pointed out, the reclusive subject of Shane Salerno’s documentary most likely would have loathed this intrusive, speculative and sometimes melodramatic biography of the author whose decades-long attempt to avoid the spotlight made him all the more famous.

True, and kind of beside the point. No disrespect to the memory of J.D. Salinger, who died in 2010, some 40 years after he stopped publishing and disappeared behind the fences of his remote home in Cornish, N.H. One can understand why Salinger (and the critics of this film) would cringe at many of the suppositions and stylistic flourishes in this documentary — but despite its considerable flaws, “Salinger” is a valuable and engrossing biography of the author of arguably the most beloved American novel of the 20th century.

At one point in “Salinger,” young people seemingly from all over the world hold up their copies of “The Catcher in the Rye,” reciting the title and clutching it like a talisman. Has any other book spoken so directly to so many tens of millions of teenagers?

After an opening passage in which a photographer recounts the day in the late 1970s when he captured a rare shot of a white-haired Salinger exiting the Cornish post office, Salerno takes us through “all that David Copperfield crap,” as Holden Caulfield put it — details about Salinger’s family, his upbringing in a posh apartment on Park Avenue, his days at military school, his cocky assurances to one and all he would become a great writer.

Much time is spent, and rightfully so, on Salinger’s war experiences. At 25 and after an earlier, failed attempt to join the Army, Salinger successfully enlisted and was put to work as a counterintelligence officer, interviewing captured German soldiers as well as the citizens of various towns to learn everything possible about the enemy. Carrying the first six chapters of “The Catcher in the Rye” with him every step of the way, Salinger survived three of the bloodiest battles of World War II and observed firsthand the unspeakable horrors at Dachau — experiences that left him traumatized for life and greatly influenced nearly every postwar word he ever wrote.

Salerno uses stock period footage, still photos of Salinger and interviews with a few of his surviving friends and a couple of ex-lovers, along with a curious collection of celebrities, including Martin Sheen, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Cusack and Edward Norton. That’s all pretty standard stuff and it works quite well — but “Salinger” also includes a number of dramatic re-creations that fall flat with a thud.

An actor playing Salinger is alone onstage, pacing or pounding away at a typewriter while giant images from his life flicker behind him. That’s awkward enough, but we venture into pure cheesiness when we see “Salinger” meeting with agents and publishers in what appears to be the same Manhattan building, “Salinger” toting a log up a New Hampshire road, “Salinger” (or to be more precise, Salinger’s legs) padding through a Florida beach with a 14-year-old Jean Miller, who later would become one of the many quite young women the author reportedly romanced. (According to the real Jean Miller, Salinger waited until she was 18 to take her virginity — and then had little use for her once he couldn’t idealize her.)

Even more disturbing is the passage linking the violent acts committed by Mark David Chapman (who killed John Lennon), John Hinckley (who tried to kill President Reagan) and Robert John Bardo (who shot and killed the actress Rebecca Schaeffer) to their love of “The Catcher in the Rye.” John Guare says if your work inspires one psycho, it’s not cause for concern — but three? That should give an author pause. What about the nearly tens of millions of people who have read “Catcher” and HAVEN’T shot anyone? What about the thousands of artists that were inspired to create after reading the book? J.D. Salinger is no more responsible for those three shootings than the creator of a violent video game is responsible for some sick maniac shooting up a school. “Salinger” doesn’t defend Salinger.

Where “Salinger” succeeds is in the gripping section on World War II, and in the exquisite, often melancholy details in the stories told by the likes of Joyce Maynard, who became an instant rock star when she wrote a first-person cover story for the New York Times Magazine at the age of 18, and found herself living with Salinger a short time later. (Two of Salinger’s former love interests tell strikingly similar anecdotes about watching TV shows such as “Lawrence Welk,” listening to the music of the 1940s and dancing with Salinger in his New Hampshire home.)

Although Salinger rarely strayed from his comfort zone of Cornish, we see numerous examples that belie the notion of a Hughes-like hermit. He had his friends. He had a string of lovers, and wives. He had a son, and a daughter (who have vastly different memories of their father’s involvement in their lives).

And he kept on writing. “Salinger” ends with a supposed bombshell about the subject matter and even publication dates of some of that work.

Here’s hoping they got that part right.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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