Illustration by Ashley Naftule
As story premises go, Coming Through the Rye has an excellently appealing idea. Based on a true story, the film follows Jamie Schwartz (played by Alex Wolff), a young highschool boy as he attempts to locate legendary writer J.D. Salinger in the hopes of gaining approval for his play adaptation of Catcher In The Rye.
What results is a long, boring, cliched, predictable, mess of a film that leaves a feeling of sad disappointment with what could have been a decent drama had it been made by competent creators instead of sloths with too much free time and Kubrick’s entire discography on DVD. It’s quite baffling how this ended up so poorly executed as thematically, this film should be a direct hit. Both the film and Catcher In The Rye mirror the ideas of coming of age, and assuming responsibility. They even share common plot points like running away from boarding school and the main character being a melodramatic twat.
Coming Through the Rye acts like an itemized list of mediocrity in filmmaking, the writing is nothing special and is riddled with tried and tired standardized movie tropes. It’s supposedly based off of the director’s actual experience in high school, but I honestly have trouble believing that James Sadwith’s life is like a bad Nickelodeon made-for-TV movie. For example: the older brother is introduced and it’s immediately noted that he’s a dirty little rascal who parties too much, does drugs, and has sex with hot girls instead of doing his homework. They just really want you to understand that he doesn’t play by your rules, man! So every scene with him has him showing off his illicit activities just to hammer it home that he’s a bad boy. Maybe this actually happened to the director’s brother, so I won’t bash on it too hard but when it was later mentioned that he was being sent to military academy to straighten out, during the late ’60s no less, I couldn’t help but think “Gee, I wonder if this person whom the main character obviously looks up to and only shows up in flashbacks is going to end up having died in one of the largest wars of the last century? Bonus points if his death is used as a catalyst for the main character’s inner pain that later gets him picked on!”
It was so painfully forced that I couldn’t even bring myself to be mad. Later, when the movie reveals that the brother is dead, the tone, lighting and music of the scene implies that one should feel bad for Jamie. It’s just a shame that his brother had a total of three minutes on screen before being pushed out the door. No one could claim that they knew this character enough to feel sad that he’s gone. The only thing we know about him is that he’s a bastard and that his younger brother also aspired to be a bastard. He’s not a character; he’s a talking piece of cardboard for Jamie to cry over and inspire a character arc. That’s just one example of stereotypical writing in the film, let’s delve into the actual story.
The opening scene starts with Jamie discussing with his English professor about his senior project: a stage adaptation of The Catcher In The Rye which he states is his favorite book but he would need to get the writer’s permission first as to not cause any litigation. Why Salinger would have given a rat’s ass about a shitty high school play based on his book is beyond me but we are supposed to pretend like having permission is an actual sticking point. There’s no guarantee that the publisher or the writer of Catcher would have even heard of a play being produced or that the money the school made off of ticket sales would have been substantial enough to cause a lawsuit, but whatever. The teacher is quick to explain that no one has been able to successfully contact J.D. Salinger, as he is notoriously reclusive and doesn’t wish to be bothered (all the more reason to eschew getting permission), but that’s not going to stop Jamie for you see, he truly understands the character of Holden Caulfield.
He relates to Holden on a level that no one else does. He even states that he feels the book was written specifically for him and “No really you guys, I have a deeper connection with this fictional character than even the writer!” Sounds a lot like Mark David Chapman or John Hinckley, Jr. Just saying.
He never actually shows in his behavior that he’s just like Caulfield, he just kinda says it over and over again in the hopes that the audience registers that he really, really, really likes this book. So he starts sending letters to the publisher in the hopes that they can help him contact Salinger but to no avail. He continues to work on the play throughout his acting in his school’s production of Romeo and Juliet. He considers approaching his girl crush about possibly playing Phoebe in his play. He gets pushed away by his bully and dejectedly decides to approach her later.
He’s on the cast bus for Romeo working on the script when the perfect girl appears. Her name is Deedee and she’s sweet, supportive, and also has a borderline serial-killer-esque obsession with Catcher In The Rye. At this point I said “Gee, I wonder if Jamie is going to abandon his stupid crush with this character whose main character trait is just being pretty and fall in love with this perfect girl who has just plopped into his lap and has an obvious interest in him? Bonus points if he holds onto his crush just long enough for Deedee to get mad at him and cause unnecessary conflict!”
Back at the school, it becomes clear that Jamie has no friends and one has to wonder if it’s because he never shuts the fuck up about Catcher in the Rye. It’s later revealed that the reason no one likes him at school is because he ratted out a bunch of his friends for substance abuse for fear that they end up like his brother: expelled and sent to die in the jungles of Vietnam.
To the movies credit, this takes place in such a way that you could tell that it was pretty great internal conflict for Jamie. He has to choose between feeling cool or losing his friends doing something he feels is right and might save them from future turmoil. One night, a bunch of boys come into his dorm, and start messing with him, breaking his typewriter. This pushes Jamie over the edge as he is sick of being treated poorly and he decides to follow in Holden Caulfield’s footsteps and run away from his boarding school, determined to find J.D. Salinger’s house since he can’t get ahold of him through any other means. He makes a quick stop to see Deedee who agrees to drive him around till they find Salinger because Jamie doesn’t have a car.
So a whole lot of nothing happens and the duo ends up at a hotel to stay the night in. They get a room together and things start to get sexual. This makes Jamie, as well as the audience, rather uncomfortable and after discussing Deedee’s heavy periods, he puts his pants on and rushes downstairs to get shitfaced and hit on a 30-year old woman. So apparently, it’s okay for Jamie to drink his troubled mind away but if his friends do it, they deserve to be reported. Okay? Why did this movie hammer in how morally upstanding he is just to have him betray that very notion? It’s incongruous to the character to have him reject sexual activities because of his brother and then have him downing whiskey like a champ in the next shot.
And he won’t have sex with Deedee who’s willing to sleep with him but then he just starts chasing after some random lady at the bar? Normally I’d say that a scene like this is intended to flesh out the character and showcase his flaws, but considering that all the characters are all two-dimensional archetypes and the fact that he literally never does anything like this again, it just feels cheap and inconsistent. I have a sneaking suspicion that the only reason this scene exists is to emulate a scene from the book where Holden Caulfield does the exact same thing.
They might as well have had a UFO beam down a sacred tablet that allowed them to speak with God for all the fucking subtly that had.
The lady even starts to mock Jamie for being young and inexperienced just like in the book. There are quite a few events in the film that mirror the book too. Even the awkward abstinence is similar to when Caulfield gets a prostitute then fakes a back injury. Perhaps Sadwith just really wanted to make a Catcher In The Rye film but couldn’t acquire the rights so he pulled a Nosferatu; same events as the book with the names changed around and slight changes to the story to avoid a lawsuit.
Later Deedee and Jamie are on the road again looking for Salinger’s house in the town he supposedly lives in. He asks the local residents where he can find Salinger but they all feign ignorance to who he is and give confusing directions as to where he might be. This is actually pretty cool as it’s common knowledge that the townsfolk actually did this for Salinger when people came looking for him. It was entertaining to see actual events being weaved into this story. They ask around for a long time each villager giving different directions until they come to a ladies house with her kids playing in a pile of leaves. She does what every other person has done and feigned ignorance to Salinger’s existence but then the kids start to chant an eerily convenient rhyme about the exact location of Salinger’s cottage… Yup. They might as well have had a UFO beam down a sacred tablet that allowed them to speak with God for all the fucking subtly that had.
Armed with their newly-found plot convenience, they finally meet with Salinger. J.D. Salinger is played by Chris Cooper (otherwise known as discount Alec Baldwin) and is the most entertaining part of this film because he’s an absolute dick. He’s quick to anger, insults Jamie, and tells him he should just go home and give up because he would never give the rights to adapt his book. I’m not really sure what Jamie expected in this situation. Salinger mentioned that lots of people have contacted him and offered him substantial sums of money for the same rights. I guess Jamie thought that Salinger would give him the rights for free based on how much he identifies with Caulfield?
Salinger is quick to note that he could never faithfully create a Catcher In The Rye play because it would be in the voice of Jamie, not the original creator. Jamie’s response is “Oh no, it’s not my voice, in fact I just took the exact wordings from the book and put it in play form!” Where do I begin with what’s wrong with this? First off, that’s literally just blatant plagiarism (like this entire movie), why would Salinger be okay with that? Like he really expected him to say “Oh wow, you stole my work and are putting your name on it, you’re right, you should put this play on!” Second, how in hell can Jamie possibly claim to know this character at all if he can’t even be bothered to write his own fucking adaptation? Wouldn’t it have been better to keep the basic outline and use that as a foundation to create new and unique scenes in the spirit of the original? How does regurgitating previous works prove your dedication and deep understanding of a complex and interesting character? Jamie leaves rejected with only Salinger’s solemn promise that if a play of Catcher ever goes on, he will seek legal action.
So naturally when he gets back to the school, he puts the play on anyway and the school board is perfectly fine with it all of a sudden. Sure, whatever. Not like it was his teacher who told him he’d have to get permission in the first place in order to get the go ahead for this project. It was at this point that I said “Gee, I wonder if everything is going end up happy and resolve itself perfectly, with Jamie learning a lesson about overvaluing his person? Bonus points if he makes friends with the people who previously disowned him!”
The play goes on to be a critical hit with the community and Jamie goes back to see Salinger who’s suddenly psychic “You put the play on didn’t you? And it was a huge hit, right?” He then says “It always is, you’re not the first person who has sought me out to adapt my play and done it despite my apparently empty threats.” Implying that this a rather common occurrence. How many times have people visited those plot convenient kids? This was set in the sixties. You’d think after two, maybe three times of her kids ruining the town joke, the mother would have beaten them into singing about something else if she actually gave a shit about keeping Salinger a secret. Something tells me that the entire second half of this movie didn’t actually happen during the events that Sadwith based this off of and he just filled in the rest with what his 17-year old brain thought it would have been like. Whatever, the movie ends with that.
You’re not Lars Von Trier, you can’t get away with awful editing mistakes like that and just pass it off as art.
So the story itself is crap and it’s not much better in the editing department, either. Near the beginning of the movie there are several parts where time freezes and Jamie speaks directly to the audience sort of like Ferris Bueller. Groan. While this isn’t a new idea by any means, I was looking forward to getting to have occasional looks into what was going on in Jamie’s head. Nope. It literally happens twice within the first ten minutes of the film and never done again. There were several occasions where this could have been turned into a theme of the film and Jamie just talks to the audience. The awkward sex scene maybe? How about when he finally meets his hero J.D. Salinger, the person he’s been striving for an encounter with the entire hour and half this movie goes on for? It’s just a shitty gimmick introduced and then dropped in a desperate attempt to give the film a personality.
Perhaps it’s for the best, as it could have been annoying to constantly stop the film to have a nice chat but I still can’t shake the idea that this was some wasted potential. On top of that, there were several occasions where the characters were clearly overdubbed in post. Normally this isn’t a huge deal, but at least twice, a character’s mouth swung open like a deflated Kermit the frog sex doll, and words just spilled out into the atmosphere. It looked like one of those old Godzilla Kaiju films, it was that distracting. You’re not Lars Von Trier, you can’t get away with awful editing mistakes like that and just pass it off as art.
Not that good editing can save a film if the actors are shit anyway. While Alex Wolff did an okay job with his role, far too often he and Stefania Owen (who played Deedee) had terrible inflection patterns. It seriously felt like I was watching a middle school play. Every time either of them had to express an intense emotion, it seemed so held back and reserved. I’m not sure if it was due to poor directing or maybe they’re both just budding actors but hopefully they grow as actors and understand what they need to work on because I feel like both of them have the potential to be powerhouses with a bit of work and competent directing.
The cinematography was nothing special. Lots of back and forth shots between characters having a conversation but occasionally there was a shot that was fairly well done. There were scenes with Jamie and Deedee in a field of dandelions that brought the camera out for a nice wide angle. The light danced wonderfully off of floating dandelion seeds and adequately expressed a feeling of magical wonder. It was especially appropriate in this scene because this is where they share their first kiss. During one of the freeze scenes, there was a bunch a food flying through the air and the camera tracks Jamie as he walks around a frozen crowd. This wasn’t too special but it was one of the only pieces of camerawork that looks like it took any effort. That being said, these scenes make up maybe three percent of a 90 minute movie. The other ninety-seven percent of the shots are boring and dull. It’s like they rented a tripod for three months and wanted to make sure they got as much use out of it as possible to get their money’s worth.
So why bother writing a review on this film if it’s so painfully mediocre? Why would I waste even more of my time on this drab, bland, mess? Well I saw this film at the Phoenix Film Festival and left the theatre immediately after it was over because James Sadwith was in the room and I didn’t want him to hear me make fun of it. What I didn’t realize is that this badly written, poorly acted, terribly edited, waste of potential would go on to win actually win awards. It won the Copper Wing for best screenplay, and best picture! I was stunned when I heard the news and that’s just from Phoenix! To date it has won over twelve awards ranging from rising star awards to best films. It currently has an 8.2 on IMDB and a 97% on rotten tomatoes. Now granted the majority of these are from audience scores, but it’s still jarring that so many people could look past this film’s poor performance. It has a similar score to Lord of The Rings, how is this possible? It’s getting a full release on September 30th and I hope to god I see those scores fall.