Too few biopics of larger-than-life artists have found the techniques — such as the radically kaleidoscopic storytelling of Todd Haynes's Dylan rumination, I'm Not There — to penetrate their subjects' mythic personas and unknowable creative impulses. In a seemingly Sisyphean endeavor, the directorial debut of Danny Strong (co-creator of TV's Empire) adapts Kenneth Slawenski's biography of J.D. Salinger, a figure nearly as famous for penning The Catcher in the Rye as for his intense penchant for privacy. The handsomely staged results are as weakly conventional as Salinger's work was not, with reenactments of milestones connected by, to quote one character, "dime-store Freud" observations.
In 1939, unpublished young smartass "Jerry" (Nicholas Hoult, respectably sympathetic) is temporarily blown off by Eugene O'Neill's daughter Oona (Zoey Deutch) at a Manhattan jazz club, while his own father proves an on-the-nose scold: "How do you possibly believe you can be a professional writer?" Through the next decade-plus, Jerry finds a mentor in literary-magazine editor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey, given room to chew scenery), an agent who cares (Sarah Paulson), the inspiration to craft one of the Great American Novels as an enlisted man facing WWII horrors, and finally, a yogi (Bernard White) who relieves him of his PTSD and writer's block. Our reluctant literary antihero eventually retreats to the countryside, away from interviewers, stalking obsessives and more typewriting-with-voiceover montages. This thanklessly watchable film, recut since its mixed Sundance premiere, may not warrant Holden Caulfield's trademark judgment of phoniness -- but like any clichéd writing, deserves rejection.