"If they made a movie, Holden wouldn't like it," Martin Sheen opines deep into the new documentary Salinger. He's speaking of the possibility of a film adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye, a disastrous idea that J.D. Salinger prevented in both life and death. Sheen, of course, could be talking about the movie that actually did get made: this one. Despite a few killer anecdotes from people who managed to meet the intensely private author before his 2010 death, and a couple new photographs of the writer himself in his dotage, Shane Salerno's film is two bombastic, bullshit-packed hours of proof that Salinger and Caulfield were right to hide out from Hollywood.
Ever wanted to see an actor playing J.D. Salinger typing up "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" on the stage of some plush movie palace while footage of World War II flickers on the screen behind him? And that the climax of "Bananafish" — American fiction's most upsetting suicide — should be scored with the thunderous crack of an offscreen gun? Or that the ideal way to demonstrate the popularity of The Catcher in the Rye would be a montage of smilin' young folks of all races thrusting their copies of the book at the camera? They seem to be shouting, "Wouldn't you like to be a Pepper, too?"
It groans on like that, almost like it's all some kind of stunt, like throughout the production everyone at the Weinstein Company, in some fit of antiliterate pique, was muttering, "You think we're vulgar? We'll show you vulgar!" You know the way on C.S.I. shows every bit of fuzzed-over security footage evidence must be "enhanced," hilariously, several times, until the detective spots the key clue? Ever thought that same dramatic technique, scored to stinging thriller strings, would be appropriate for presenting paparazzi photos of a sixtysomething author picking up his mail? And how does Martin Sheen, appearing as a talking-head expert in a documentary about J.D. goddamn Salinger, manage to say anything other than, "Wait, why in the hell am I here?"
To suggest that his harrowing tours of Europe in World War II had ravaged Salinger's psyche, Salerno quick-cuts between stock footage of beaming Americans frolicking in their swimsuits and shots of the charred corpses of the concentration camps. To indicate that Joyce Maynard's teenage love affair with a much older Salinger might have been a touch troubling, the filmmakers spin "Ooh Child" — just the kind of pop hit that would mean nothing to Salinger, who never missed The Lawrence Welk Show. (Elsewhere, for some reason, we hear "Mony Mony.")
I take no issue with the film's argument: Salinger was something of a crank, a creep and a genius, a man wrecked by the war, disgusted by our culture and enraged that Charlie Chaplin, well past 50, once stole his girlfriend. With The Catcher in the Rye, whose pages he carried at D-Day, Salinger wrote brilliantly of an alienation he was surprised to find almost everyone shared. Afterward, with his later Glass family stories, he actually manufactured alienation even as he chronicled it: The work seems engineered to shut much of us out. Eventually, shaken by his fame and some tough reviews, he lit out for the hinterlands, refusing to publish after 1965 — and ensuring his legacy. Up in Cornish, New Hampshire, he wrote in a bunker, seems to have been neglectful of his wife and kids, and couldn't resist pen-palling much younger women, some of whom he hooked up with. (The movie is mum about the sexual specifics. Joyce Maynard, in her memoir, is not.)
His exile is dramatized with footage of a hunky young man lugging a log up a hill. What the movie gets hilariously, howlingly wrong is the idea that a life like Salinger's — so extraordinary, yet so willfully humdrum — could somehow be captured by the most shopworn of cinematic techniques. The sequence in which the actor playing him bangs out The Catcher in the Rye could come from A Beautiful Mind or even Rocky, if the typewriter he's punching were swapped out with slabs of frozen beef.
In one reporting coup, Jean Miller, the first of Salinger's teen muses, describes their courtship and eventual affair. She says that he once told her never to speak in clichés. But there's no cliché the filmmakers can resist. Actors playing the Glass kids stare up at the actor playing Salinger, because, we're told, his characters were as real to him as his family — meanwhile, World War II footage plays behind them. It's all so straight-up insulting in its stupidity that it's no surprise when a title card explains that The Catcher in the Rye is narrated by a young man named Holden Caulfield. That's what this movie is — a Salinger doc for people who can't get through The Catcher in the Rye.
There is some news in the film's last moments, but it was broken by the New York Times weeks ago: Yes, Salinger wrote through his exile. Yes, there is a stack of manuscripts ready to be published. Yes, they are purported to begin appearing as early as 2015. And, no, no one will remember this film by then. The forthcoming biography that it's based on, by David Shields and Salerno, has to be better — right?