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'Salinger' review: Holden back on J.D.

J.D. Salinger reads from his classic American novel

J.D. Salinger reads from his classic American novel "The Catcher in the Rye" in Brooklyn. (Nov. 20, 1952) Credit: San Diego Historical Society

THE SHOW "Salinger: American Masters"

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday night at 9 on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Screenwriter Shane Salerno spent 10 years on "Salinger" (which also had a theatrical release) about the author of "A Catcher in the Rye," who died in 2010 at age 91. With dozens of interviews, including Hemingway biographer A.E. Hotchner, movie stars (Martin Sheen, Philip Seymour Hoffman) and literary icons (Gore Vidal, John Guare), who explain Salinger's influence on them. (Also, Jean Miller, who had a five-year relationship starting in 1949.) The basics are all here: D-Day landing as an Army sergeant, postwar breakdown; "Catcher in the Rye" and Holden Caufield . . . then New Hampshire seclusion.

MY SAY Poor Jerry Salinger. I'm guessing he'd hate this film. He'd hate any film about him -- but this one in particular, with its faux-stirring, hyper-romanticized synth soundtrack, intrusive first-person accounts and triumphalist tone that demands you think of him as the greatest American writer since, well . . . since forever. (He actually might like that part.)

Of course, I have no idea what Salinger would think, but saying nothing about one's extraordinarily famous life leaves the door open for others to say something, and dozens have their say here. Salerno does a yeoman's job in tracking down everyone who ever talked to Salinger, fought with him or slept with him.

What's missing, glaringly so, is a single insight into Salinger's literary merits. His spectacular reputation essentially rests on just one slim novel. But a great book? Or a youthful literary fling and rite of passage for millions of high schoolers? With the help of observers who offer many colorful anecdotes, Salerno gets close to the paradox of Salinger's life -- the more reclusive he became, the more famous he became. He never gets close to the meaning of that paradox, or of the work itself.

Salerno needed to step back, go to the books (and stories), understand their significance, then figure out Salinger from that starting point. What Salinger asked for -- in a sense still does from the grave -- was understanding, not bouquets. Or to quote Holden: "Who wants flowers when you're dead? Nobody."

BOTTOM LINE Remarkable footage, plenty of smart observations from smart people, but there's an emptiness at the core of this film.


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