‘Saligner’ is made of equal parts love and squalor

This rare photo of J.D. Salinger at the end of WWII is on view in the documentary on his life. Credit: The Weinstein Company
This rare photo of J.D. Salinger at the end of WWII is on view in the documentary on his life.
Credit: The Weinstein Company

‘Salinger’
Director: Shane Salerno
Genre: Documentary
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

Documentaries on artists need not necessarily resemble their subjects’ work. But it’s unlikely that there’s a film about J.D. Salinger that, stylistically speaking, the author would have hated more than “Salinger.” This is a standard expository doc, with overly dramatic music cues and constant inserts of an actor furiously typing away while chain-smoking. It’s the kind of film that would have inspired rude words from the writer’s most signature creation.

Of course, Salinger would have also likely hated how much it peers into a life he kept at least mostly private. Made while he was alive (most of the talking heads speak about him in the present tense) but released three years after his death, it offers unprecedented access to a writer who dropped out of society just as his most famous work was snowballing into an official rite of passage for kids into pissy adolescence. Cutting himself off behind a New Hampshire compound, he was kept busy with sad stalkers, desperate to seek advice from a man whose writing articulated their antisocial feelings better than they ever could.

Some of the revelations have already been revealed, though the major missing aspect is Salinger himself. It’s up to filmmaker Shane Salerno — a big-time screenwriter with credits on “Armageddon” and “Avatar” — to find the truth amongst conflicting reports. He does admirable snooping, revealing a man more savvy than he led on — one prone to traveling, showing up backstage at premieres and calling up The New York Times to spill some beans himself.

Almost inevitably, given the paucity of hard facts — and the plethora of autobiographical suggestions that riddle his work — it also winds up too reductive. The narrative he sculpts posits the writer as a sensitive soul broken by Oona O’Neill, the teenaged socialite daughter of Eugene O’Neill. She wooed him, only to shack up with Charles Chaplin while Salinger was being further traumatized by WWII. Her presence — plus the number of young girls hanging with older men peppered through his work — supposedly buttresses claims that he was a perv forever attracted to innocence.

How much of this is true? It’s hard to say, especially as the anti-Salinger sect, including his daughter (but not his son), get more and more screentime. A fawning hagiography would have been bad, but “Salinger” goes too far the other way into rickety hit piece. There’s even a long section dwelling on the psychos —Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley Jr., the man who shot Rebecca Schaeffer — who claimed “Catcher in the Rye” as their bible, citing them as proof of the author’s inhumanity. (Nevermind the millions who have plowed through the book without hurting anyone.)

Amusingly, this set piece leads directly into the most shocking revelation: Completed, never-released Salinger manuscripts are to be published, now that he’s no longer alive to stop them. Salinger’s work is dangerous — and, hooray, there’s more en route!

Sometimes Salerno’s portrait does attain complexity, not confusion. (Salerno also co-wrote an epic book on the subject, which allows more space to avoid reductive claims.) In the final moments, Salerno throws in the last known footage of Salinger, getting into a car with his last life mate and smiling. It’s a moment whose normalcy make the claims and charges that preceded it seem like rank assumptions. He was just a guy.


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