Director Shane Salerno has an admittedly tricky obstacle in making “Salinger,” a documentary about the intensely private “Catcher in the Rye” author, J.D. Salinger. After the tale of Holden Caulfield made Salinger a celebrity, the writer took up residence in small-town New Hampshire, avoiding press and fans. As a result, footage and photos of the enigmatic author, who died in 2010, are hard to come by.
Salerno makes up for what he lacks visually with dramatic reenactments of a similarly tall, dark man jabbing at a typewriter in front of a giant movie screen that’s supposed to convey Salinger’s thoughts. Otherwise, the director repeatedly presents the same handful of photos. Both tactics are much more distracting than if the camera had simply focused on the interviewees.
Among the storytellers are friends, acquaintances, unauthorized biographers, nutty fanatics and some big names, including Tom Wolfe, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Gore Vidal. What emerges is the portrait of a self-assured man, who never had any doubt he would become a successful writer. But his tour of duty during World War II, which likely inspired his masterwork, also irreparably damaged his psyche. According to interviews, Salinger was neither a good husband nor a present father; he was domineering and volatile, and those traits ended numerous relationships.
While much of the movie consists of variations on this same theme - that Salinger was a brilliant, flawed man - the film also delves into more salacious matters, including the role of “Catcher” in the shootings of Ronald Reagan, John Lennon and Rebecca Schaeffer (gunmen John Hinckley Jr., Mark David Chapman and Robert John Bardo were all fans of the novel). Meanwhile, Jean Miller and Joyce Maynard, both teenagers when they met the much-older Salinger and started relationships with him, offer their own sad stories. The film hints that these women stand in for many other girls that Salinger targeted and ultimately dispensed with.
While some of the stories are interesting, the film is much longer than it needs to be. For his part, Salerno tries to get creative with solutions for the lack of visual stimuli, but most attempts fail.
For example, Maynard was interviewed twice telling the same story, but at different times, wearing different clothes. Salerno edits these interviews together, switching back and forth between the two. The result is not only perplexing but indicative that there may have been some kind of script, which hurts the movie’s credibility. Using B-roll of an artist drawing portraits of Salinger and his acquaintances seems similarly pointless. Worse, the movie is riddled with overly evocative music, some of which sounds like it belongs in a thriller.
It’s clear that “Salinger” wants to offer new insights by covering fresh territory. The film features a clip of the man while in Europe during World War II, accepting a flower from a lady. There is no audio, and the scene is rather basic, yet the film makes a point of explaining that this is never-before-seen footage. This snippet might be a new discovery, but it’s hardly a revelation, and it adds no depth to this portrait of Salinger.
The latest word is that the Weinstein Company wants to develop a biopic about Salinger with Salerno as the screenwriter. Given the many stories about Salinger and the dearth of images, it would have been more efficient just to skip the documentary altogether.