Timing is almost as important as content on those rare occasions when popular culture rises to world-changing effect. In 1951, J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye became a phenomenon for a world that didn't know it was ready for something new. The book questioned post-war conformity, reveled in subjective experience and captured the ways and language of young people just before the first explosion of youth culture in America. The Catcher in the Rye has sold 65 million copies as subsequent generations (especially in the 1960s) discovered it and claimed it as their own. It still sells a quarter of a million copies every year. And it has acquired a mystique thanks to Salinger, who published only three more books of stories before leaving New York City, exiling himself to a small town in New Hampshire, and refusing to publish anything more — even though he reportedly continued to write on a daily basis for almost 50 years before his death in 2010 at the age of 91.
Times are different today. Pop culture seems to have little potential to change the world, if only because there are too many marketing professionals trying to make that happen. More often we get cultural ephemera like writer/director Shane Salerno's documentary Salinger and its 698-page companion book. Previously known mainly for writing action movies like Armageddon, Salerno worked on Salinger for nine years, all while convincing the press he had penetrated the author's inner circle to acquire startling revelations and therefore needed to shroud the project in total secrecy to preserve its impact. Salinger has its share of news about the author's life and character — some of it credible, some not — but it's all delivered in a sensationalistic and overblown style that Salinger himself would have found deeply distasteful. This is a terrible irony that undermines any chances the film had for substantive success.
Early on, Salinger presents interviews with people including actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and author Tom Wolfe to attest to its subject's artistic significance. Those with firsthand revelations mostly turn out to be rejected ex-girlfriends and — amazingly — stalkers who recount painful one-time encounters with their reclusive hero. Because there's so little visual material available that relates to Salinger, the film employs endless re-enactments that eventually dissolve into unintentional self-parody. Important subjects like Salinger's traumatic and formative experiences in World War II combat are handled reasonably well, but Salinger throws that all away with a collage of young people from all over the world joyfully holding up their tattered copies of The Catcher in the Rye as if they're in a soft drink commercial. At least this sequence helps explain Salinger's well-documented status as a misanthrope.
There's a primary "secret" revealed at the end of Salinger that reviewers have been asked not to divulge. Of course, this information has been widely reported over the last week or two, first by The New York Times. But buying a movie ticket to get your news hardly sounds like a good idea. That's what the Internet is for. — KEN KORMAN