Insightful gems are unearthed throughout the flawed but engrossing Salinger,a much-anticipated documentary about the author of The Catcher in the Rye.
The film isn't as incisive as J.D. Salinger might have preferred. And the reclusive writer, whose credo was all about not selling out, probably would have recoiled from one breathless swath that feels like an infomercial for his upcoming posthumous books.
Still, it's an exhaustively researched look (*** out of four; rated PG-13; opens Friday in select cities) at a compelling subject.
In the years before his death in 2010 at age 91, the novelist finished five works that are scheduled for publication between 2015 and 2020, and director Shane Salerno presents their unveiling here with the cinematic equivalent of a sales pitch.
But neither those scenes, nor irritating re-enactments, fully detract from the riveting story of Salinger's life and art, or from the observations of friends, colleagues, lovers, fans and scholars.
A few of the talking heads, particularly the celebs such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton and Judd Apatow, seem unnecessary, even if they're clearly admirers. The most penetrating remarks come from Jean Miller (the inspiration for Salinger's 1950 short story For Esmé - With Love and Squalor) as well as from longtime friends such as editor A. E. Hotchner, former girlfriend Joyce Maynard, writer A. Scott Berg and daughter Margaret Salinger.
Discussions of his burning creative drive, dramatic wartime experiences and rocky personal life allow audiences a glimpse behind the secrecy that has shrouded Salinger since he stopped publishing in 1965. Maynard talks about the Buddhist rituals that she and the author practiced after eating frozen peas and dancing to Lawrence Welk.
Riveting description of Salinger's World War II experiences, particularly his 299 days on the battlefield and his traumatic tour of Dachau concentration camp, contrast with vague snippets about his short first marriage to a German woman.
Explanations of how he worked, holed up for weeks at a time in a "bunker" by his secluded Cornish, N.H., home, are intriguing, as are a few photos of an elderly Salinger snapped surreptitiously by fans.
The film captures the massive global popularity of The Catcher in the Rye - it has sold more than 65 million copies since its publication in 1951 -and addresses the more lurid aspects surrounding the novel, including the influence it had on John Lennon's killer, Mark David Chapman.
The focus on Salinger's enigmatic nature, coupled with his correspondence with teenage girls, borders on sensationalism. But Salerno, who spent more than nine years on the project, has unearthed some treasures, including the only known photo of Salinger writing The Catcher in the Rye, taken by a soldier pal on a European battlefield during a lag in the war.
One of the most haunting scenes is a devotee recounting what Salinger told him after he staked him out at his New Hampshire home in 1978: "I'm a fiction writer," Salinger said. "I'm not a teacher or seer. I can't pretend to know the answers."
Neither can this documentary.