Director: Philippe Falardeau
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Margaret Qualley, Douglas Booth
Despite his bum/dropout air, Holden Caulfield is quite the reader. He says, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” Apparently, that happened quite a lot with Holden’s creator, JD Salinger. So many people from across the world, after reading The Catcher in the Rye, wanted the connection that Holden craved with the authors of the books that “knocked him out”. Letters arrived by the pile at the reclusive writer’s literary agency, which had a set of template replies, depending on the type of letter it was. It was the job of young secretaries to type and mail them out.
Joanna (Margaret Qualley) is one of those secretaries. Of course, like everyone else employed in anything remotely literary in New York, she really wants to be a writah. As a little girl, when her father would bring her to the city, she loved watching the people around. “They seemed to have such interesting lives,” she says, to the camera, to us. She decides she doesn’t want to be ordinary, even if that means doing what aspiring writers do: live in cheap apartments and write in cafes. Philippe Falardeau’s My Salinger Year, adapted from the memoir of the same name by Joanna Rakoff, is a wispy — and very entertaining — ode to everyone who’s shared Joanna’s dreams.
But first, there’s the reality. This is an expensive city, and you need a day job — and that’s how Joanna ends up in the literary agency that represents Salinger. All this happens a little too easily, if you ask me, but I think the fairy-tale aspect is part of the film’s charm. At one point, Joanna undertakes a pilgrimage to the Waldorf Astoria hotel, while Moon River plays on the soundtrack — she seems to be Audrey Hepburn in an Audrey Hepburn movie. It’s all right out of Breakfast at Tiffany’s — the struggling writer (though it was the male protagonist in that movie), the rather cruel break-up with a love interest, and the fetishising of a brand considered the pinnacle of its kind (Tiffany & Co. becomes The New Yorker here).
And this fairy-tale aspect is why Joanna’s boss Margaret (Sigourney Weaver) comes across as practically a godmother. (Well, almost.) Margaret isn’t Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada — she doesn’t rhyme with witch. She isn’t exactly a 180-degree reversal, but when she tells Joanna, “To be in this field, you have to read authors who are alive,” it doesn’t sound like a put-down. She just sounds weary, like someone who’s seen far too many young things profess a love for really old writers in order to make themselves sound more “literary”. Despite cartoony character touches (she hates computers), Weaver takes a role that could have been hammed the hell out of and makes Margaret a very real person.
She’s one of the reasons the film slowly grew on me. It revolves around the mid-90s period when Salinger decided to have a novel published after decades. (It was Hapworth 16, 1924, which first appeared in The New Yorker, taking up almost an entire issue.) Joanna is in the inner circle of these happenings. She speaks to the author whenever he calls for Margaret, and the eccentric man who has a peacock roaming the grounds of his estate seems to take a genuine liking for this girl over the phone who wants to be a poet. He asks her to write, “even if it’s just 15 minutes in the morning. Protect that sanctuary.” I think I misted up a bit.
The film is catnip to anyone who’s a writer, anyone who romanticises the “writing life”. Every scene is a turn-on, and it’s not just the poetry readings and the manuscripts editing. It’s the secret knowledge that maybe you hated a book not because you actually hated the book but because you hated the fact that the author went ahead and completed a book while you were doing other things. It’s the awareness that to write a book, you have to want to do it more than anything else in the world. It’s the chin-stroking over what Joanna’s boyfriend Don (an amusing Douglas Booth) says: “Writing makes you a writer, not publishing. Publishing is commerce.” Yes? No? Maybe?
By the end, My Salinger Year turns out to be something of a Bildungsroman. Joanna grows up. She is able to break up with boyfriends in a more decisive (and yes, articulate) way. She makes mistakes (though she’s never really punished). She even manages to — finally — read The Catcher in the Rye and see for herself what the fuss is all about. She enters the world of Salinger. (There’s a delightful musical interlude taking off from a train-station scene in Franny and Zooey.) She also enters the worlds of his fans, whom she has imaginary conversations with. These marvellous flights of fancy are grounded by Qualley’s remarkably unsentimental performance. There’s so little that’s showy. Writing, after all, is such an interior activity.