Salinger does what so many documentaries and biopics fail to do or decline to attempt; it speculates convincingly on the connective tissue between the life and the work of the subject.
Director Shane Salerno's film exhaustively researches author J.D. Salinger and interviews hosts of people who knew "Jerry" well, wrote of him extensively or simply admired his work. And although it turns over new stones, its conjecture — the very thing that makes it admirably ambitious — might overreach occasionally.
Salinger overcomes some melodramatic moments and hit-or-miss cinematic devices to present a fascinating picture of one of the 20th century's most enigmatic writers, who retreated from public life only to be pursued by prying fans.
The film traces his works side-by-side with his life. The author's experiences in World War II, as described by unit mates and his own words, are projected as a direct influence on his writing, helping illuminate one of the author's most prominent characters, doomed veteran Seymour Glass.
Although the film makers are unquestionably admirers, this is a warts-and-all portrait. Stories of Salinger's arrogance and unforgiving nature accompany tales of his charm and generosity. His detachment as husband and father is detailed by those who knew him best, including his daughter.
Even his preference for far-younger women is explored, to the point of painting nearly a Humbert Humbert figure. (Salinger is not portrayed as a pedophile, and the much-younger women with whom he had relationships describe long pursuits of him rather than vice versa).
This approach sometimes yields insight into his works, notably A Perfect Day for Bananafish and For Esmé, With Love and Squalor. And the documentary breaks news, albeit from anonymous sources, of intended posthumous publications.
The film also examines the cult of personality that sprung up jointly because of The Catcher in the Rye's universal speaking of angst-to-power and Salinger's decision to stop publishing and giving interviews. Both that worship's ugliness and the ways in which the writer himself might have fed it are shown.
He did live an unusually disconnected life, spending his days writing in a bunkerlike structure, in a canvas jumpsuit his daughter describes as a "uniform," but the very notion of Salinger-as-recluse is challenged, with sound bites from locals describing his frequent appearances in town.
There is plain irony in so personal — and plainly speculative — a portrait of a man who so jealously guarded his privacy. Salinger occasionally blurs the line between straight documentary and the sensational reports that smear the airwaves.
But what emerges is a complex portrait of a complex man: A Jewish counterintelligence officer who married a woman who might have been a Nazi; a world-renowned author who continued to write privately after last publishing in 1965; and a celebrity whose parting shot to a former paramour (author Joyce Maynard) was, "The problem with you ... is you love the world."
PG-13 for disturbing war images, thematic elements and smoking. Weinstein Co. 2:09. Kentucky Theatre.