Movie review: My Salinger Year
Joanna Rakoff’s memoir takes its small gestures to the big screen in Philippe Falardeau’s adaptation that finds a soft spot for a world before word processors, emails and the amputated personal communiques called ‘texts.’
My Salinger Year
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Margaret Qualley, Douglas Booth
Directed by: Philippe Falardeau
Written by: Joanna Smith Rakoff
Running time: 1 hr 41 mins
Available Now on VOD
By Katherine Monk
Stories about writers can push myth harder than a Lord of the Rings fan page, and that’s okay. Writers, after all, write the stories that perpetuate the stereotype of the complicated, insular and forlorn creatures hived away in their humming imagination hoping to produce the epic manuscript — or, at the bare minimum, something publishable.
Given the title, My Salinger Year would seem to be a story that offers the same hagiographic notion of the tortured soul strapped to the word processor — or, in this case, an actual analog typewriter. Set in the late 80s, early 90s — the very moment when computers were poised to reinvent the entire publishing industry — My Salinger Year wobbles through the creative process, teetering at the edge of commerce, clinging to the roots of personal authenticity by its fingertips.
It’s a familiar story of creativity vs. career, and Quebecois director Phillippe Falardeau (M. Lazhar, C’est pas moi, je le jure) doesn’t appear to have any desire to reinvent a single beat of Joanna Smith Rakoff’s original book.
The characters are served on a silver platter, well-formed and complete with a side of secreted insecurity. First up is Joanna (Qualley), our protagonist who just arrived in New York City looking for work — and miraculously lands a job at a literary agency. Of course, Joanna really wants to be a writer herself, but without a big body of work and just a handful of published poems, she knows everything that she sends in will land in the dreaded ‘slush pile’ of unsolicited manuscripts. And Joanna doesn’t want to feel like a total loser — she’s seen too many self-obsessed men struggle with their own egos as they assume everything they write will turn into a bestseller, only to find another rejection letter in the mail.
The characters are served on a silver platter, well-formed and complete with a side of secreted insecurity.
So Joanna takes the job working for Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), the old-school mentor who truly believes in literature, scorns technology, and just happens to be the guardian of J.D. Salinger’s catalogue and public correspondence.
Before long, the duty of opening, reading and cataloguing Salinger’s mail is handed off to Joanna. It’s almost as good as meeting the man they call “Jerry” — but Joanna, being a writer herself, feels a kinship with the legendary hermit and starts to blur the boundaries between her job and her own writing. She writes personal notes to the fans, talks to Jerry directly, and even suggests publishing partners for Jerry’s unprinted material.
The fact that Salinger even has new material arrives as something of an afterthought in this largely unmodulated drama told from Joanna’s point-of-view. The problem is the character of Joanna — a young woman who feels like a projection of a desired self more than a real person. Joanna is the woman we want ourselves to be when we’re in our 20s: cool, collected, intelligent and smarter than all the older adults around her — or at least she thinks so.
Her internal arrogance is never questioned, which means the movie feels soft in the centre — half-baked and trapped in its own artistic wish-fulfillment fantasy. As a result, when Joanna does all the things we expect her to do, such as trust her creative voice, break up with her self-centred boyfriend, and humble Margaret by refusing to accept the big job she’s offered in the last act — it feels completely pat.
Her internal arrogance is never questioned, which means the movie feels soft in the centre — half-baked and trapped in its own artistic wish-fulfillment fantasy.
She’s supposed to be a symbol of creative integrity, but despite the crafty performance from Margaret Qualley, who brings a shadow of doubt to the character through her flickering
physical presence, Joanna feels a little too hollow, a little too much the sculpted ingenue, to convince us of the great artistic sacrifice — let alone the noble cause of putting pen to paper, and pouring out your truth.
THE EX-PRESS, March 5, 2021