Movie review: ‘Salinger’ captures author’s back story

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLESeptember 20, 2013 

  • SALINGER

    ••

    Rated: PG-13 for disturbing war images, thematic elements and smoking. Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, Judd Apatow. Director: Shane Salerno. Running time: 120 minutes. Theater: Flicks.

“Salinger” does what so many documentaries and biopics either 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 documentary 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 — may occasionally overreach.

“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 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.

Although the filmmakers 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.

There is plain irony in so personal — and speculative — a portrait of a man who 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 may 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 was, “The problem with you … is you love the world.”

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