MY SALINGER YEAR

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Philippe Falardeau

Stars: Margaret Qualley, Sigourney Weaver, Douglas Booth, Colm Feore, Brian F O’Byrne, Tim Post.

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The Devil Wears Prada set in a literary agency? The comparison is obvious if somewhat lazy, and My Salinger Year is also a little bland by comparison. It is not as sharp or as well written.

This is an adaptation of Joanne Rakoff’s best-selling 2014 memoir detailing her year spent working in the New York literary agency that represented J D Salinger, the notoriously reclusive author of Catcher In The Rye, one of the twentieth century’s most iconic novels. The agency was headed by the imperious, chain smoking Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), who eschewed modern digital technology in favour of old-fashioned typewriters and dictaphones. Joanne (played here by Margaret Qualley, the daughter of Andie MacDowell) was a recent graduate and an aspiring poet who landed a job at the agency as Margaret’s personal assistant. “Writers make the worst assistants,” Margaret casually remarks as she introduces her to her duties.

Joanna was tasked with responding to the hundreds of letters sent in by fans of Salinger. But the fan mail was never forwarded to Salinger; instead of personal responses, Joanna responded with impersonal form responses and then shredded the correspondence. At the same time she was struggling to establish her own voice as a writer. She received some unsolicited personal advice from Salinger himself during his rare phone calls to check in with the agency itself. 

Then Joanna decided to go against Margaret’s instructions and begins to send off personal responses to the writers. But the potential conflict that this created is quickly dispensed with.  

Joanna lived with her boyfriend Don (Douglas Booth), also an aspiring writer who works in a socialist bookstore. They lived in a cramped apartment, without a kitchen sink, in New York City. And she slowly began to grow apart from Don who was critical of her own abilities. But this subplot is the least interesting element of the film and barely manages to sustain interest.

My Salinger Year has been faithfully adapted from Rakoff’s memoir by French-Canadian filmmaker Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar, etc). He consulted with Rakoff during the writing phase and the script captures the simple charm of her memoir. But, unfortunately, the final result is a bit bland, and it lacks the spark of similar films like The Devil Wears Prada, which also looked at a young woman trying to forge her own path while toiling away thanklessly and seeking approval from a hard taskmistress.

There are numerous subplots throughout the narrative, some of which are less effective, and the film explores the debate between commercialism and creativity. Falardeau’s direction is uninspired for the most part, but he does serve up one nice visual touch when he creates a montage to give voice to the authors of the various fan letters. But the song and dance number in a hotel lobby is bizarre, and a grating addition that adds nothing to the drama.  

The influence of the superior The Devil Wears Prada is obvious on the relationship between Margaret and Joanna, but here it lacks the same frisson of tension and there are few fireworks between the pair. Weaver delivers a restrained performance as the icy and demanding Margaret, and she slowly peels back the layers revealing more about her complex character. In contrast Qualley (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, etc) is underwhelming as the wide-eyed, naïve but rather bland Joanna, whose character seems like an archetype of the unsatisfied working girl.

The film replicates New York of the mid 90s with some great production design from Elise de Blois that captures the wood panelled offices, and warm cinematography from Sara Mishara.

★★☆

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