The subject of the book and documentary is not Salinger the writer but Salinger the star: exactly the identity he spent the last fifty years of his life trying to shed. Cast entirely in terms of celebrity culture and its discontents, every act of Salinger’s is weighed as though its primary purpose was to push or somehow extend his “reputation”—careerism is simply assumed as the only motive a writer might have. If he withdraws from the world, well, what could be more of a come on? If it turns out that he hasn’t entirely withdrawn from the world but has actually participated in it happily enough on his own terms: well, didn’t we tell you the whole recluse thing was an act?
This kind of scrutiny might possibly say something about a writer like Mailer, whose loudest energies (if not his best ones) were spent playing in the public square, not to mention Macy’s windows. But it couldn’t be worse suited to a writer like Salinger, the spell of whose work is cast, after all, entirely by the micro-structure of each sentence—on choosing to italicize this word, rather than that; on describing a widower’s left rather than right hand; on the ear for dialogue and the feeling for detail; above all, on the jokes.
Dana Stevens is also underwhelmed by the film:
The mystery of J.D. Salinger—why he wrote, why he stopped publishing, who he was—has survived half a century of attempts at desecration, from the importuning, wisdom-seeking fans who for decades staked out his house in Cornish, N.H., to the sickening second life of The Catcher in the Rye as a manual for high-profile murderers. That mystery is certainly hardy enough to withstand the voyeuristic onslaught of this self-aggrandizing, lurid documentary, which leaves the viewer feeling that we’ve been given a tour of Salinger’s septic tank in hip waders without ever getting to knock on his door and say hello.
But Tom Shone finds a redeeming quality:
[J]ust as you’re about to pelt the screen with peanuts for sheer phoniness, we get the real thing: the only known film footage of the actual Salinger, shot during the war, when he was at his most tall, dark and Clive Owenish, doffing his hat to Parisian women offering him flowers. He takes a single flower and tucks it into his hat brim — a piece of gallantry he nonetheless performs with ineffable and beguiling shyness.