One of the things we learn from Shane Salerno's biographical documentary about J.D. Salinger is that Salinger loved old Hollywood movies as much as loathed the idea of his own work ending up on the screen. Before he became famous for “Catcher in the Rye,” he sold his wonderful short story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” to the Samuel Goldwyn Company and saw it morph into “My Foolish Heart,” a romance with Dana Andrews and Susan Hayward. He justifiably hated the film, which took a perfect, self-contained little tale and bloated it into something almost entirely different. You can find the story's dialogue in there if you pay attention.
One wonders what he would have thought of Salerno's film — or, more accurately, how much he would have despised it. Most famous people like their biopics in direct relation to how much they reflect their self-images back at them. In the case of Salinger, the effect would be magnified. Here was a man who spent the first half of his life successfully laboring for literary fame and the second half wanting to be left alone and refusing to publish anything. For years, there were rumors he had a massive case of writer's block, despite his claim to be writing every day. Salerno gets confirmation from a few of his friends that he really was writing; and claims at the end that he left behind five books to be published posthumously starting some time before 2020.
Salinger is a compelling figure, in part because of his withdrawal from the world — or at least what New York literary types consider the world, i.e., New York. Salerno presents a succession of talking heads affirming Salinger's importance — Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe, A.E. Hotchner, John Guare and Martin Sheen.
An excess of talking heads can be deadly in a documentary but Salinger left behind almost no footage for Salerno to plunder. Salerno chooses the most common solution — to “reenact” scenes, a la every true-crime show on TV. It's tacky there and it's even tackier here because of Salerno's apparent affection for lame metaphorical reenactments. If Salinger rejects a friend permanently, we will hear and/or see the iron door clanging shut. We repeatedly return to a Salinger surrogate typing away on a stage in an empty theater. Huh?
The film also lingers too long on some images. An aerial shot takes forever to home in on its subject; and, when it does, you rather wish it hadn't. Do you really need to see an unconvincing Salinger stand-in puffing along a country road, bearing a log like a Jewish Paul Bunyan? No, I didn't think so.
Despite these stylistic missteps, “Salinger” will hold your interest if you have any emotional investment in the author's work — and maybe even if you don't. We learn a spate of intriguing facts about him along the way. Among them: He dated and fell in love with Oona O'Neill, who chose Charlie Chaplin instead; he was part of the D-day invasion; he also helped liberate Dachau; he worked in Army Counterintelligence after the war, looking for Nazis; in the course of his work, he fell in love with a beautiful Nazi and brought her back to meet the whole mishpocheh; and he had the hairiest arms I've seen since my last visit to the primate house in Griffith Park.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun