Directed by: Shane Salerno Documentary Running Time: 2 hrs Rating: PG-13 Release Date: September 20, 2013 (Chicago)
PLOT: A documentary about the life of J.D. Salinger, who wrote The Catcher in the Rye, and then disappeared.
WHO'S IT FOR? Those who can accept a documentary's many flaws for the abundance of information it provides.
Salinger fanboy Shane Salerno probably would have preferred that A Perfect Day for Bananafish had more suicides, or that the cruise in Teddy borrowed its final moments from the nautical genocide in The Poseidon Adventure. A rare kind of bad movie treat for both the world of documentaries and the fan universe of J.D. Salinger, his doc Salinger is an absurdly wrong passion project with a presentation spiritually and intellectually unrecognizable to Salinger's work, or even the author's attitude about his work. Salinger is a not a documentary that complements the life-story of its hero, but selfishly perverts it. While he has committed nine-plus years of his creative life to a film project about one of the sexiest mysteries in American literature, it's not difficult to envision Salerno flunking a 100-word essay on the author's distinctive qualities, especially on the importance of precise mystery that has made Salinger's writing so intriguing for numerous generations.
Salerno treats the hunt for Salinger as if the intentional recluse was Jason Bourne, beginning with a tale of how one photographer "got Salinger" when the wintry author was getting his mail. Shamelessly over-dramatic and starved to wring each intense part of Salinger's life for any drop of sensationalism, Salinger will praise Catcher in the Rye as if it were the 20th century's Bible, will accompany new footage of war-era Salinger talking to someone with a prayerful silence, but divide chapters of the writer's life with comically climactic cuts to black, or use the overdone poetic device of reenacting the life of a biopic subject on the stage. A tasteless segment about Mark David Chapman is edited to accentuate gunshots and screams, and Salerno is overly convinced we apparently haven't seen enough horrific imagery of the Holocaust. A driving electronic score harping indeed on The Bourne Identity pulses this movie right to end, making the entire package more similar to a summer movie trailer than a film. (If this movie had been made in the 90s, it is certain classical music greatest hit "Carmina Burana" by Carl Orff would be on the soundtrack list - in fact, it would probably play nonstop for two hours.) All of this happens before Salerno's final declaration of "not getting it," in which the director makes Salinger walk once more, through a succession of rapidly edited paparazzi pictures, all to the rhythm of a Coldplay song. That last part kind of has to be seen to be believed, and bemoaned.
Amidst his amateurish aesthetic choices, Salerno demonstrates that he picked a viable focus for a beefy doc. In some instances, those uninitiated with Salinger's story can even look beyond Salerno's junky storytelling choices because the film is indeed eye-opening to striking life experiences that have been obscured in the writer's work (his time in World War II, especially). Salerno has certainly picked a fascinating human being to explore, and he's done his research. He takes his audience step-by-step through the life of Salinger, with seemingly no fan of Salinger missing from the interviewee list (some are much more helpful than others). Even movie personalities, who usually have nothing to share but their own humbled fandom, make an appearance to take part in trying to define Salinger, or praise him.
But in its Christmas church service-like running time through the life of Salinger, this documentary misses out on a bigger picture of the strange town that protects Salinger as if he were their little secret. We hear stories about the numerous Salinger fanboys and girls that journey to Cornish, NH and interacted with very apoplectic locals, but this most interesting facet to Salinger's epilogue remains the doc's accidentally most interesting aspect. How old are these Cornish residents, and how local are they? Why are they so protective? What do these people themselves understand about celebrity, and protecting the human right to privacy? How do they interact with other celebrities? In a separate documentary, likely a better one, someone takes one of this film's subjects (who certainly register like "important" like Catcher-era Salinger), and plops them into this town. How would these protective folk respond if Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, John Cusack, or even more notable stars rolled into town? Or is Cornish, NH a safe haven for any celebrity, regardless of their star power voltage?
Perhaps Salinger leaves this large stone unturned because the film itself is oblivious to the concept of privacy. For the declared "wounds" of Salinger that are in his work (as someone says wisely in the film, that Salinger has these wounds but is trying to heal them through writing), Salerno is only interested in ripping them open even wider, excited about the gory details that will trickle out from pursuing the parts of Salinger that the author kept personal for a reason. Himself soon to be an author of a third Avatar sequel, Salerno's second and third act post-Catcher coverage provides a nightmarish example of the insatiable gluttony within fanboy culture - wishing for more and more from creators and their creations, even if there is nothing actually there. Salerno's uncovering of Salinger's private decades, the film's most uncomfortable and terrible segments, are more tabloid-like catchup on his personal affairs than the grand revelation of a hidden epilogue. As agreed upon in this doc by the film's subjects, Salinger was aware of the power to his name, even decades after hiding away, but was also in control of it. Here, now that Salinger can't summon lawyers from the grave, his life is rife for the pickin'.
With a money-shot reveal at the end, Salinger turns the debut of the author's final work into the film's own hyped event - it's the big surprise that this chopped-up infomercial of a movie has been leading up to. As it shares news we all know now about new Salinger books to be released starting in 2015 (something a press release could do with the same effect), Salerno confirms his selfishness with the sacredness he supposedly has for Salinger, taking advantage of the heavy spotlight he had initially created for his center deity. He echoes the same demands of gossipy attention shown throughout the movie, such as when Joyce Maynard or Salinger's own daughter wrote memoirs about experiences with the author; Salerno hopes to gain importance for his film by simply being associated with another storyteller's achievements.
To be fair to this doc's potential for entertainment, it has promise with a laugh track, and is a very unique lesson in the necessity for a doc subject to be recognizable within its aesthetics. Salerno, wherever his heart may be as he stalks a dead man, doesn't get this. He doesn't understand that there's no thriller to be made of this story about a disturbed writer who intentionally abandoned such tasteless attention.
FINAL SCORE: 3/10