No Surprises

Maybe we should have just left the notoriously reclusive J.D. Salinger's life a mystery

Director Shane Salerno is quite taken with his subject, the author J.D. Salinger, though not in an obviously academic or even investigative way. Salerno, one of Hollywood's youngest rapid overachievers 15 years ago, has devoted years on the side to this project, releasing the documentary Salinger alongside a book of the same name.

Salinger, of course, wrote The Catcher in the Rye, one of the most notorious and celebrated novels off all time; the book that influenced Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley Jr. to shoot John Lennon and Ronald Reagan, respectively; the book that will never be filmed, by edict of its creator; and the book that in black helicopter circles can allegedly still get your name on an FBI watch list.

While much is known about the lifespan of the book, less is known about the author. Salinger more or less stopped granting interviews in the 1950s and popped up only a couple times thereafter in the press. He turned away from the limelight, moved to a small town in New Hampshire and never released another novel after Catcher.

So the draw to a character like Salinger is understandable, but making a documentary about a guy who left very few traces of himself for half a century is a daunting task. Salerno leans on Salinger's old friends, ex-lovers and various authors to try to paint a more complete picture. Unfortunately, we never really get there.

The first half of Salinger is strictly biographical. He was born in (X), enlisted in the Army in (X), had his heart broken by (X), and collected a stack of rejection notices from magazines. That's all rote Wikipedia stuff, although the fact that, before he became famous, Salinger lost his girlfriend to the one and only Charlie Chaplin is a terrific and unusual side note.

Speaking of side notes: Shane Salerno achieved great success as a writer when he was considerably younger than J.D. Salinger. He made his first documentary at 18, hung around the set of NYPD Blue at 19 and by 23 had already worked with Steven Spielberg. The next year, he was hired to rewrite a screenplay about a meteor headed towards Earth, and Armageddon was born.

But oil riggers trained to be astronauts are easier characters to create than one who successfully dodged the world since the Eisenhower administration. It's almost as if Salerno presents the more rudimentary first half of the story to make up for the possibility that Salinger was not really a guy you'd want to get to know after success found him. The author would reportedly write in his studio for weeks on end. He may have been an absentee father even though he was home, and he reportedly had a penchant for younger girls (18-moves-in-with-53 kind of stuff).

The only thread here worth pursuing is how Salinger, who saw nearly 300 straight days of combat from D-Day to V-E Day in World War II, was shaped by what he experienced in the European Theater. By the time he was among those storming Utah Beach in Normandy, Salinger had long since created the disillusioned Holden Caulfield, waiting for a story to find him. In fact, he wrote a fair amount of The Catcher in the Rye while deployed in Europe. That's an electrifying point to consider, but Salerno only speculates about what it all could mean.

Similarly, the filmmaker has no major bombshells to disclose in exploring Salinger's final decades. He does reveal, in an alarmingly self-promotional manner, the release schedule for several unpublished novels, so that's something. But if you're interested in actually gaining insight about one of our most successful and reclusive artists, you'll have to look somewhere else.

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