Sometimes a documentary is great because it is about a great subject. But other times, a documentary can be not so great, even when focusing on a worthy subject. There is no question that the famous author, JD Salinger, is worthy of a full-length documentary, but in Salinger (opening today), the methods and presentation of the film leave a lot to be desired.
JD Salinger is the famous author of The Catcher in the Rye, a book thought of as one of the greatest American novels of the past century. He is a famous recluse and this novel was mysteriously his only full novel...sure, he has several other writings and published books - mostly short story collections - but this classic work stands alone. So who was JD Salinger? What made him tick? And why did he never write another novel?
The film Salinger asks all of these questions and more, answering none of them fully. It details his life - his time spent in World War II, his love affairs, his professional rise to fame - and it celebrates the impact that The Catcher in the Rye has had on American culture. Not all of this impact was positive, as the film points out, because three known killers - including Mark David Chapman, the man who murdered John Lennon - cited The Catcher in the Rye as inspiration for their heinous crimes. The book does deal with themes of alienation and teenage angst, something that Salinger dealt with himself. The movie only brushes over the book's link to these criminals, instead spending its time posing as an investigative expose on the man, the myth, the legend, that is JD Salinger.
But never have so many talking heads been put into a film to make the same point. If there are 50 different interview subjects in Salinger, there are only a select handful of new perspectives presented. Most of these people - known authors and actors detailing how Salinger's work has influenced their own - didn't know the man at all. Those that did only seem to tell fleeting stories of their encounters with him.
And that may be the point: That Salinger is a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a mystery. But spending 2 hours - quite bloated for a documentary - pondering the same questions ad nauseum without ever penetrating the mystery or discovering any tangible conclusions, becomes quite tedious. Even from a technical aspect, the filmmakers seem to be grasping at straws. They make a big deal in the film about a short clip of video that was captured of Salinger during World War II - seen in this film for the first time - and you understand why they did so, when you see that the filmmakers use the same 5 or 8 photos over and over again throughout the rest of the film. Apparently there was not much to work with visually.
That's the over-riding problem with Salinger: Here's a compelling guy that the world knows little about and a filmmaker trying to find out who this man was. There are just as many questions about JD Salinger now as there were at the beginning of the film. It spends too much time on his World War II background and too little time on the Salinger of the past few decades (Salinger passed away in 2010). Probably out of necessity though, because again, there was apparently not much to work with in terms of visual storytelling.
Seeing Salinger may make you want to re-visit The Catcher in the Rye, or check it out for the very first time. But it ultimately comes across no deeper or more insightful than reading the back flap of a novel. We know where Salinger was and what he did, but we still have no idea of who he was.
Run Time: 2 hours, Rated PG-13
Featuring: Gore Vidal, Martin Sheen, Tom Wolfe, Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Cusack
Directed by Shane Salerno (Sundown: The Future of Children and Drugs)
Opens locally on Friday, Sept 20, 2013 (check for show times).
Be sure to watch Tom Santilli on TV! Check your local listings for “Movie Show Plus” for Tom’s weekly movie review segment, airing at 3 p.m. EST on MYTV20 in Detroit.
How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time