Dear Mr Salinger! We demand answers. How could a person as firmly established in the literary canon as you inspire such a lukewarm movie? How can the same writer who gave us A Perfect Day for Bananafish, be the selling point of the dullest literary adaptation in recent memory?
After all, Philippe Falardeau’s My Salinger Year begins promising. The year is 1995 as Joanna Rakoff (Margaret Qualley), college student and aspiring poet arrives in New York City to work as an assistant in the oldest literary agency of the city. It’s helmed by the eccentric Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), a lesser version of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada and little does Joanna know that the same agency represents Jerry. That’s short for J. D. Salinger, a notorious recluse, who has boarded himself up in New Hampshire and not given any interviews for the last three decades. Joanna’s job is to protect Jerry from fans, journalists and movie producers, but above all: to answer his fan mail, which means to type up a form response and shred the letters. Soul-crushing, to say the least.
The movie is based on Joanna Rakoff’s 2014 memoir which chronicles her time at Harold Ober Associates, an agency that represented everyone from Dylan Thomas to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Now these literary giants stare down from their picture frames, trapped in an anachronistic office (the only computer in it is to be used for very specific research and covered up afterwards). Books of Salinger line the walls, oh, and then there is Jerry himself, who manifests as a voice in the receiver, never as a face.
Somewhere in the back of this unglamorous set-up is Joanna’s ex from Berkeley and her current writer/male cub boyfriend and a handful of underwritten characters roaming analogue offices and enjoying luncheons with the likes of Rachel Cusk. At one point there is talk of Jerry wanting to publish a story (Wonder! Novelty!), at another point there is a tragic death, as detached from the plot as humanly possible (Sad! This is life!). Joanna, who is in actuality a writer stuck in a dead-end typist job, is played with some level of earnestness and conviction by Margaret Qualley, who makes the runtime more bearable even if she never manages to give her character the depth she deserves. Who is Joanna and what does she want? Weaver and Qualley have a good chemistry, but the movie is not interested in exploring their mentor-pupil relationship.
We don’t learn more about the world of publishing or literary agencies, either. Falardeau’s movie shies away from any complex subject matter, just like Joanna who does not read Jerry’s books but frolics at the idea of meeting a YA author. It’s not a coming-of-age story, not the story of a blooming artist, not even Salinger’s story. In fact, Falardeau would have done everyone a service by not mentioning the Catcher author at all.
My Salinger Year is like a letter that Joanna shreds, resisting the temptation to give the audience the answer they deserve. Of course, true to tradition, this is what the 2020 Berlinale would open with.