J.D. Salinger is the perfect candidate for a tell-all documentary. No one can deny this. Famously reclusive, Salinger has inspired so much media attention by not seeking attention. He could afford to do this because of the monster success of his seminal novel The Catcher in the Rye. One of the most astute observations this documentary makes is that Salinger knew the value of his name and timed his rare appearances if he really wanted something (like getting the ingenue Joyce Maynard to visit him in his secluded New Hampshire house). Shane Salerno’s Salinger seeks to take full advantage of people’s interest in Salinger, the man, whether they are hardcore followers or just have fond memories of reading The Catcher in the Rye in high school.
With all that being said, this movie is mostly for the former audience. Director Shane Salerno does not make a good case for a casual viewer to be interested in the subject of Salinger. This is not from a lack of trying on Salerno’s part. However, most of the faults of this movie are Salerno’s very attempts to make the movie more cinematic. This is most obvious in the many (mostly pointless) interviews with famous actors (all male by the way) who are only interviewed because they 1) have read The Catcher in the Rye and 2) are famous. The movie also makes liberal use of dramatic reenactments, which end up just being distracting since they use an actor to portray Salinger who clearly does not look like him. Salerno also clearly went for quantity over quality (the movie is too long and episodic), which would have been fine if he had been better at arranging the topics covered in the film instead of jumping all over the place.
All these faults could have been excused if Salinger had delivered and given some juicy new revelations, but the movie’s revelations are not really revelations to the most dedicated of Salinger followers. Salinger acts best as a thorough if not compelling primer on the whole media phenomenon Salinger unwittingly created. This movie’s main audience, once it exits theaters, will be the English classes of high schools where The Catcher in the Rye still has a robust shelf life.