Shane Salerno’s investigation into the famously reclusive shy author of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE debuted at Telluride last year just days before its theatrical release via The Weinstein Company. It also screened at Toronto and IDFA.
When Salerno’s film was announced, speculation ran rampant regarding its contents. Early teasers framed the doc as a mystery, and insiders wouldn’t confirm or deny if the filmmaker had managed to secure an interview with his eponymous subject before the latter’s death in 2010 (spoiler: he did not). Upon its world premiere at Telluride, critical response was decidedly mixed to negative, with many reviewers likening the film to the “phony” world that Salinger’s famed protagonist Holden Caulfield railed against. Nearly a decade in the making, Salerno’s doc aims to make sense of the author, who retreated from public life half a century ago, never publishing another novel, and to uncover what he’s really been doing in smalltown New Hampshire ever since. Salerno’s hardly the first to try – he interviews others here who felt compelled to seek an audience, strangely convinced that in his refusal to be in the public eye, Salinger perversely coveted their attention and would offer them great truths, when in fact, the man just wanted to be left alone and to avoid the kind of bombastic hype that is in evidence in Salerno’s own film. Beyond this paparazzo-like fetishization, where it really goes wrong is in its parade of CATCHER admirers, none adding much of substance, its over-the-top score and stylized re-enactments, and Salerno’s over-psychologizing the impact of WWII combat on the author. What are more successful, and intriguing, are the stories of those closest to Salinger – much younger women like Jean Miller and Joyce Maynard, featured here, with whom he was in relationships – or Salinger’s neglected wife and daughter. As a whole, while watchable, the film unfortunately too often feels more like a special edition of UNSOLVED MYSTERIES than a nuanced exploration of Salinger’s work, its cultural impact, or the pressures and pitfalls of fame.