Director Shane Salerno has an admittedly tricky obstacle in making “Salinger,” a documentary about the intensely private “Catcher in the Rye” author, J.D. Salinger. After the tale of Holden Caulfield made Salinger a celebrity, the writer took up residence in small-town New Hampshire, avoiding press and fans. As a result, footage and photos of the enigmatic author, who died in 2010, are hard to come by.
Salerno makes up for what he lacks visually with dramatic reenactments of a similarly tall, dark man jabbing at a typewriter in front of a giant movie screen that’s supposed to convey Salinger’s thoughts. Otherwise, the director repeatedly presents the same handful of photos. Both tactics are much more distracting than if the camera had simply focused on the interviewees.
Among the storytellers are friends, acquaintances, unauthorized biographers, nutty fanatics and some big names, including Tom Wolfe, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Gore Vidal. What emerges is the portrait of a self-assured man who never had any doubt he would become a successful writer. But his tour of duty during World War II, which likely inspired his masterwork, also irreparably damaged his psyche. According to interviews, Salinger was neither a good husband nor a present father; he was domineering and volatile, and those traits ended numerous relationships.