In 1995 graduate and wannabe writer Joanna (Margaret Qualley) applies for a job with A&F Literary Agency in New York. Starry-eyed at the prospect of being discovered, her dreams are however brought down to earth by her fearsome boss Margaret (Sigourney Weaver). Tasked with solely shredding and robotically replying to letters sent to their most reclusive client ‘J. D. Salinger’, Joanna is told to never engage him in conversation, should he ever phone…
Director Philippe Falardeau’s adaptation of Joanna Rakoff’s memoir is a lushly-realised take on a dramatic world. Where readers and industry insiders alike are catalysed by the wares that they handle, Sigourney Weaver’s intransigent yet intellectual Margaret tries to maintain an objective distance. Saddled with a valuable friend in key client Catcher In The Rye‘s J.D.Salinger, “Jerry” isn’t the problem but controlling his fans are. By shredding every request for correspondence, the agency believes they can grant his wish for privacy. Yet, when events conspire in the form of Jerry’s desire to release his first new novel in decades with a small regional publisher, Joanna finds herself in direct contact with the reclusive writer. Required to silently crush the urgent pleas of his fanbase, Joanna is caught between two extremes and decides to secretly write back to Jerry’s fans.
So, at this moment, with its lightly rose-tinted spectacles perched over the keyboard, My Salinger Year could be said to be taking a leaf out of last year’s ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ In another story of an interloper engaging in unsanctioned correspondence, the brief outline of this movie might read the same and yet, subterfuge is not the main dynamic at hand.
Having left her writing aspirations on the shelf, My Salinger Year wants to explore the nature of distraction and how elevated access to success can blindside you from your real purpose. With more melodramatic strands attached to its second act, the movie moves Joanna into more personal territory. Whilst reconciling the broken heart she left behind to the strains of ‘Moon River’ with one fan’s letters which repeatedly ask if it’s right to reveal your emotions to the world, Joanna’s eyes are opened to the path ahead.
In a later scene where the passing of the torch doesn’t necessarily light the right path ahead, Margaret Qualley’s Audrey Hepburn-like Jo rejects a future that Sigourney Weaver’s Margaret previously accepted. It’s a fleeting moment and in this sentiment-tinged history, nothing ever lasts longer than necessary.
Sprightly, if a little undernourished by Joanna’s romance of sorts with politically-charged writer Don (Douglas Booth), My Salinger Year is a taut and solid yarn surrounded by many amusing vignettes in form of Brían F. O’Byrne’s benevolent Hugh the lawyer and Colm Feore as Margaret’s free-spirited partner Daniel.
Bearing little comparison with that other slice of New York ambition (The Devil Wears Prada), Philippe Falardeau’s adaptation succeeds in not fashioning an eclipsing performance from the woman in charge. Her woollen coat-worn-as armour quickly discarded, Sigourney Weaver folds herself seamlessly into this ensemble drama with a hidden face at its heart. In a drama that charts the difference between knowing and imaging, it might even be time to (re)read the book that is at the centre of this movie’s attention.
You might even get ‘quiet’ emotional.
(Yes, it’s ‘quiet’)
My Salinger Year | Directed by Philippe Falardeau (CAN, IRL 2020) with Margaret Qualley, Sigourney Weaver, Douglas Booth, Seána Kerslake and Brían F. O’Byrne. Starts Feb 20.