The less J.D. Salinger had to say for himself, across so many decades of near-seclusion, the more his rabid fans went on about what the author of "The Catcher in the Rye" meant to them, and why Holden Caulfield struck such a mighty chord with generations of post-World War II adolescents, whatever their age. (I read it when I was 15 and was never quite the same.) Was the author's love life, in and apart from his marriages, a series of seductions involving dangerously young women? Was his entire post-combat life a traumatic stress disorder in action? Is there a trove of unpublished material that has been awaiting the light, per Salinger's legal instructions, since his 2010 death?
That last question is left typically, frustratingly unconfirmed in the squishy new documentary "Salinger," Shane Salerno's bookend project designed to "go with" (or "help sell") the recently published oral history, also titled "Salinger," by David Shields and co-written by Salerno.
It'll be broadcast next year on the PBS "American Masters" series, which is a crock and a shame. Not since "2016: Obama's America" has there been such a weak, innuendo-laden documentary argument masquerading as a serious look at a major American figure. And not since A.J. Benza hosted "Mysteries and Scandals" on E! has such a hackneyed musical score (by Lorne Balfe, full of synthesized scare cues) lent such a fraudulent air in the name of excitement.
The movie is a combination of talking-heads interviews (some intriguing, mostly irrelevant), specious re-enactments (an actor plays Salinger at the keyboard, on a theatrical stage) and heavy-breathing intimations of enormous revelations to come, just after we're done with this bit featuring Martin Sheen (?) or a midlevel New Yorker magazine editor reflecting, from an unenlightening distance, on the greatness and the eccentricity that was Salinger.
Some of director Salerno's interview subjects are so not pertinent to the subject's life and times, you half-expect them to be identified on screen as New Yorker subscribers, if that. When author Joyce Maynard, Salinger's onetime paramour, shows up to tell her cohabitation story, this secondhand movie suddenly acquires some firsthand authority. But Salerno doesn't appear to have asked Maynard any intriguing questions.
Certainly there is much here in the way of archival material, including a brief silent snippet of Salinger during World War II. Salerno, who helped write Michael Bay's "Armageddon," among other fictional projects, pays proper attention to the early short stories and the seeds of future characters, as well as to Salinger's famously fastidious response to even a misplaced or added comma. But nearly every filmmaking decision Salerno has made feels desperate and cheesy. He begins with Newsweek photographer Michael McDermott "playing" himself, re-enacting the 1979 stakeout in which he snagged his famous photo of Salinger outside the Windsor, Vt., post office, near Salinger's home in Cornish, N.H.
It means nothing, really, that Salinger himself wouldn't have approved of "Salinger." It's not the job of a documentarian to make a film the subject likes. But Salerno blows little more than smoke in this one, especially near the end, when we get to the maybe-probably-sort-ofs regarding the maybe-probably-possibly full vault of unpublished work. A good documentary can lead you to a place of not knowing what to believe about a subject. A bad documentary tells you what to believe, and why, but in ways provoking disbelief in the movie's tactics. And that is something else altogether.
"Salinger" - 1 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for disturbing war images, thematic elements and smoking)
Running time: 2:00Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun