There is something endearing and even slightly absurd about the fervent idealism of the young, aspiring writer. Usually wide-eyed, naive, and determined to spread ideas to a public that’s not too keen about books and literature in the first place, these young scribes, especially the ones interested in fiction, still believe in a world where art and ideas matter. God bless them.
This conflict between ripe idealism and a thickheaded universe is fertile ground for wonderful storytelling. Unfortunately, writer-director Philippe Falardeau’s new film, My Salinger Year, merely skirts the possibilities. The story is there, sort of, but the characters are mere signifiers and skeletons in a universe that should be bursting with guile and passion.
Adapted from Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of the same name, My Salinger Year takes place in the mid-1990s in New York City, as twenty-something Joanna (Margaret Qualley) arrives in the big city to try her hand at writing. Instead of taking the familiar route of the starving artist, Joanna is determined to get a foothold in New York’s literary scene, whether it’s in publishing or an agency. Luckily, she lands a job as a clerk with an antiquated, albeit renowned literary agency. Run by steely agent Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), the office looks like it hasn’t been redecorated since the ’60s. Magenta walls are covered with photos of famous writers, and the assistants only use typewriters and Dictaphones, while computers — or as Margaret calls them “one of those” — are strictly forbidden.
Although the agency has challenges acquiring new “hip” writers, they represent some of the greatest scribes of all time, including J.D. Salinger, the legendary author of The Catcher in the Rye. He even calls the office and makes small talk with Joanna when her boss is out at one point.
The depiction of Joanna is the film’s biggest problem. Her personality and reactions are beyond confusing. The problem doesn’t lie with Margaret Qualley’s acting — she has a wonderful presence and gives it her all, but there’s no doubt she’s struggling with some thin material. For example, although we know Joanna’s had a few poems published, we never get a sense of her hunger as a writer. Joanna seems more hapless and baffled than passionate.
Another mistake here is the setting. Frankly, she works at a literary agency which is an aspiring writer’s dream job. Although it’s a little tedious (office gigs usually are), you couldn’t find a better opening if you want to be a writer. Yet, Joanna comes off consistently frustrated and apathetic, as if the place were a huge bummer.
In The Devil Wears Prada, which this movie takes its cues from, Anne Hathaway’s Andy isn’t interested in fashion; she finds it frivolous, which creates that palpable tension between her and Meryl Streep. In this movie, Joanna sets out to work in the literary world, and yet, scene after scene, she seems so nonplussed and uninspired, we wonder what the problem is. It doesn’t take long for Joanna’s ambivalence to rub off on the audience.
The film alternates between Joanna’s life in the office and her relationship with a narcissistic boyfriend, Don (Douglas Booth), who’s also an aspiring writer. These scenes actually have some spark to them. But just as the movie begins to pick up steam, Joanna is tasked by her boss to read letters from Salinger’s rabid fanbase before shredding them. Joanna is vehemently opposed to shredding these letters, which is presented as a moral conundrum. This is pretty banal as far as inner-conflicts go. Falardeau brings these letters to life by having actors speak directly to the camera as if they were the fans speaking directly to us. Although these confessionals might look good on paper, they’re cinematically sapless and murder the narrative where it breathes.
There are some good moments in this movie, and Weaver is fantastic, as always. But the coming-of-age trajectory, which is usually pretty exciting, is bogged down by flights of fancy, unexplained personality quirks, musical numbers, imaginary characters who literally spell out the context of the film, and a lot of unearned sentiment. My Salinger Year might be about the difficulty of finding one’s voice, but the movie itself has major issues doing just that.
My Salinger Year available on VOD and in select theaters. ❖