“My Salinger Year” is “The Devil Wears Prada,” set in a literary agency and with many of the rough edges rubbed off.
Margaret Qualley, cleaned-up from her grubby Manson disciple of “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” is our privileged young heroine, plucky and cute and ever-so-eager to “be extraordinary,” to make her mark in literature after studying in London and Berkeley.
She just happened to get a job in a publishing house that just happened to have J.D. Salinger as its most celebrated client. Years later, she got a best-selling memoir out of that experience, charming Salinger when he called, handling his fan mail by reading it — “We have to be very careful after the Mark David Chapman thing.” — and still sending his standard form letter to one and all — “Mr. Salinger” does not desire “letters from his readers…”
The film adaptation by Philippe Falardeau (“The Good Lie”) could have lapsed into cloying, and the connections between Joanna’s “coming of age” story and Salinger characters, the personalization of the letters, showing us high school kids and Vietnam vets and everybody in between performing their fan mail, is awfully cute.
But here’s what Rakoff and Falardeau give us in this “Year” — the J.D. Salinger of “Catcher in the Rye,” the not-so-much-reclusive as just seriously “private” author who never lost an opportunity to pass along bromides about writing, dedication to the craft and getting on with “the work” to young people Holden Caulfield or Franny and Zooey’s age.
This is the J.D. Salinger of myth, the one somewhat lost in the lawsuits, the affair with college student Joyce Maynard when he was in his ’50s, the infamous testiness and writer’s block that rivaled that of fellow phenomenon Harper Lee. It’s the Salinger fans long for.
This mid-90s tale seems disconnected from the modern world, largely because of how Rakoff describes ANF Literary Management in the film, “like nothing’s changed since 1927.”
It’s 1995 and the imperious boss (Sigourney Weaver, perfect) has ordained “We choose not to use computers.” The offices are quiet, staid and pierced by natural light, the gentle hum of IBM Selectrics breaking the silence. Books fill shelves, portraits of legends of literature — famous clients all — adorning the walls. Dylan Thomas and Agatha Christie and Salinger aren’t the only ones honored there.
Margaret starts her job and gets the “talk about Jerry” the first day — what to do when he calls, what not to say and when to give out his mailing or personal address.
“We have to shield him from the outside world,” boss Margaret (Weaver) intones. That involves protecting their star client from fans, schools that want a commencement speaker, charities that want something personal to auction off, interview requests, all of it.
Our story is Joanna learning the ropes, dealing with the snobbery and balancing a personal life that has her abandon a high school love by not returning to college and taking up with a 1990s Bohemian socialist novelist (Douglas Booth).
The plot may feel timeworn, but Falardeau recreates this world, of Algonquin-Lite lunches filled with anecdotes about clients (a world denied to Joanna), Salinger eccentricities and the sort of staff it takes to keep him in his Cornish, New Hampshire seclusion.
It’s not insulting to say that the supporting cast in that publishing house could be their own high-toned sitcom, or at least a streaming dramedy series. Colm Feore is the wit who glides through offices, propping up one and all, Yanic Truesdale the snarky younger foil to the boss’s Luddite tendencies and Brían F. O’Byrne the contracts and legalities staffer who worked his way to that by doing what Joanna does right now.
Qualley brings a guarded, dreamy quality to Rakoff, a young woman guilted every time Salinger called in, lying about “writing,” star-struck just standing in the lobby of The New Yorker, struggling with what to do with “my life” as she faces forks in her path and the Big Decisions of One’s 20s.
As I said, there’s not a lot of edge to all this. The many letter-writers never quite achieve wacky, crazy or poignant. Weaver’s Margaret is imperious and aloof, but more callous than cruel when compared to Meryl Streep’s “Devil Wears Prada” turn. The office isn’t bitchy or back-stabbing, which lets the movie lean more heavily on Joanna’s personal life.
And that’s just not as interesting as her trying to help the boss kid-gloves Joanna’s favorite author as a teen, Judy Blume, or gently steer a Salinger whim about finally publishing something…with a one-man publishing house in Virginia.
“My Salinger Year” was never going to be awards bait, but this cast and this world make for a grand escape from the mundane necessities of life as we’re immersed in a coming-of-age tale like few others, one that should make anybody with a soft spot for Salinger and empathy for those who had to “manage” him just a tad envious.
MPA Rating: R (Language|Some Sexual References), smoking
Cast: Margaret Qualley, Sigourney Weaver, Colm Feore, Douglas Booth, Yanic Truesdale and Brían F. O’Byrne
Credits: Scripted and directed by Philippe Falardeau, based on the memoir by Joanna Rakoff. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:41