My Salinger Year (2021)
THE DEVIL READS SALINGER
The literary world is filled with plenty of famous authors that have gone on to cultivate a mass following with their works; becoming classic within their own right and touching the lives of many individuals and many generations around the world. Of course, the inane quirks and obscure facts are many of them adds an air of mystery and intrigue into the real-life behind the famous author. Such facts can be found some really bizarre and peculiar notions about their literary lives, including Edgar Allan Poe marrying his first cousin who was 13 years old at the time, Ernest Hemingway being an expert bullfighter, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in supernatural legends, Charles Dickens was fascinated with hypnosis, and many others. One such case is found within American author J.D. Salinger, who was famous for writing the novel Catcher in the Rye and his reclusive state in the latter portion of his life. While Salinger did pass away in 2010, the mystery of his reclusive nature is one of a point of interest and adds the extra layer of intrigue to the author’s mythos…even to this day. Now, IFC Films and director Philippe Falardeau presents the time of aspiring writer Joanna Rakoff’s time working at Salinger’s publishing company with the movie My Salinger Year. Does the movie delve into the mystery behind Salinger’s reclusive life or does it fail to provide context in its “based on a true life” account?
Taking a sabbatical break from her collegiate life in California, Joanna Rakoff (Margaret Qualley) finds herself traveling to New York City to check the area, soon falling in love with lively scene and with the culture, which feeds her ambition to become a writer. Abandoning school and her boyfriend behind, Joanna soon settles into her new life, acquiring a job at a literary agency that is run by Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), who represents author J.D. Salinger (Tim Post). Unfamiliar with the writer’s work, Joanna is overwhelmed by his legacy, tasked with opening stacks of fan mail sent to the agency every week, who are clamoring for Salinger’s response. However, Joanna is strictly forbidden to answer the letter or pass them on to Salinger himself, who remains very much a “shut in” reclusive from the rest of world and wants to keep it that way. Gaining a new boyfriend in Don (Douglas Booth), a fellow aspiring writer, Joanna begins to understand the literary business, but as time sets in, she begins to question her choices, losing touch with her creative passion as she deals with the demands job and her personal life.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Working at a bookstore for more than fifteen years, I have seeing a plethora of literary writers come and go across the scene; witnessing the rise and fall of a variety of popular bestsellers and up and coming authors. Naturally, my fellow booksellers and I have read a lot of the classics and have picked a thing or two of the authors behind them; delving into the inane quirks and facts about their lives that some of the general public might not know. I’ll be the first to admit that, while I do know of J.D. Salinger and all the works he has done, I still haven’t read Catcher in the Rye. Yes, it is true. Of course, I’ve read the summary of the classic novel and all the internal themes and messages that is found within the popular tale, including adolescent alienation of and loss of innocence found within the main protagonist character Holden Caulfield, but I actually haven’t sat down and read the book myself, despite the fact that I almost every public schools system used Salinger’s novel as a recommended reading list. I just can’t believe I’ve actually haven’t read the novel yet. I just might have to one day. Looking beyond that point, I knew a little about Salinger’s life and that he was a bit of reclusive individual, but I was a bit curious as to reason why.
Perhaps it is for this reason why I was a bit interested in seeing My Salinger Year, a 2021 drama film that centers around a young woman’s time working at Salinger’s publishing company. To be honest, I really didn’t hear much about this prior to seeing it in theaters. There wasn’t a whole lot of “buzz” surrounding it on the various film / movie websites that I frequently visit. So, I actually came across it when I was searching through Fandango on one of my days off from work as I planned to head to my local movie theater that day. Reading the synopsis for the film and viewing the film’s movie trailer, I was definitely interested into seeing this movie, especially since it looked like it was gonna cover some of the mystery behind J.D. Salinger. Thus, I took a chance and decided to purchase a ticket for the movie. And what did I think of it? Well, its one of those endeavors that’s a good rental, for My Salinger Year definitely has heart and appeal, but lacks depth in its own story and insight into the reclusive nature of Salinger himself. To be sure, it’s a decently good movie, but one that is framed (and structed) in way that comes off as a tad predictable and lacking substance.
My Salinger Year is directed by Philippe Falardeau, whose previous directorial works includes such films like It’s Not Me, I Swear!, The Good Lie, Monsieur Lazhar. With his background in the more indie / lesser-known filmography, Falardeau seems like a suitable choice for helming a project like this; approaching the film with a sense of intimacy and sincere. More to the point, Falardeau has that “smaller” feeling (something akin to an independent budget feature), which has plenty of quirks throughout (in a good way) as well as giving the film a proper sense of self-discovery; focusing the lens on Joanna Rakoff as he plunges head first into her job at the literary agency and trying to find a certain type of balance between work and personal life. It’s an age-old narrative path that does come as a bit of a “double edge” sword (more on that below), but I sort of figured it was going to be like that. Thus, it didn’t bother me as much; finding Falardeau directing light and character-based focus to make My Salinger Year easy to digest and almost feels a little like a bit of “comfort food”. Plus, as being a little bit of a “bookworm”, it was kind of cool to see that the literary world, including Salinger’s presence in the film, to be the main focal point of the movie as we (the viewers) follow Joanna’s journey at her time at the agency; seeing the rigorous workings of the business, including the dozens of fan mail sent to authors as well as sent over manuscripts from aspiring writers out there. In addition, the film’s runtime, which clocks in at one hour and forty-one minutes (101 minutes), is relatively short and Falardeau makes the movie have a breezy feeling to it; never really dragging (at least in my opinion). Overall, I felt that Falardeau was a capable director on this project and made My Salinger Year a bit of redux in some of its undertaking, but still came out as noteworthy find to watch with a quant charm air around the feature.
In its presentation, My Salinger Year doesn’t really stand out as much, but it does have a distinct realism charm and quaintness to the film’s overall feeling. While not as glamorous or high-end production value, Falardeau and his filmmakers work within the film’s budget and certainly do pull it off; reimagining the backdrop setting of New York City (circa the 1990s) and gives it a sense of realism to the movie’s proceedings. All of what is presented in the film’s setting definitely works and acts as a pleasant appeal to the eye throughout the feature. Thus, the film’s “behind the scenes” team such as Elise de Blois (production design), Claude Tremblay (art direction), Léa-Valérie Létourneau (set decorations), and Patricia McNeil (costume designs) certainly deserve credit for the making the film’s backdrop setting pleasant with a sort of “even keel” / industry standard for a movie project like this. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Martin Leon, is a relatively good movie, which has a combination of soft emotional dramatics moments as well as quirk bits that give off a bit of that small “indie” feeling.
There are problems within the undertaking of this film that makes My Salinger Year a bit shallow as well as not fully encompassing the narrative what it wants to tell. Perhaps the one big criticism that I have with the movie is, despite the story its telling, that feels awfully similar to 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada. If one looks at the two story / plot lines…. they are quite similar; finding a tale of a young aspiring woman enlisting into a field where she doesn’t know much about and who also has to deal with an aloof superior boss and dealing with her own personal issues, including a boyfriend. Basically, you are just changing the fashion world and some famous designers out from The Devil Wears Prada and just transplanting the literary world and some famous authors in My Salinger Year. Because of this, the film’s screenplay / script feels a bit too familiar; matching a lot of similar “beat-for-beat” plotlines and scenarios to the 2006 film; making My Salinger Year quite formulaic and predictable. Thus, I found myself guessing a lot of what was going to happen in the movie before it actually did happen and (more often than not) I guessed right. Thus, despite the attempts made to create something a bit more different, My Salinger Year comes off as a bit of a “knock-off” version of The Devil Wears Prada.
Even looking beyond that, the movie struggles to clearly define certain emotional beats found within the narrative and particular plot points in some of its characters. This is a combination of script for the movie as well as the directing from Falardeau (he does double duty on this project), which creates a lot of “surface level” material throughout the film, despite the fact that story does go a little bit deep within personal lives of its characters (both major and minor). Thus, the substance provided for My Salinger Year leaves some to be desired, especially concerning some of Joanna’s personal life, the relationship between Margaret and Daniel, and in Salinger’s life. Speaking of which, the mystery behind Salinger’s reclusiveness isn’t examined as I was thinking that the movie was going to do. Sure, it lays the ground work and we (as viewers) get snippets into the infamous author’s isolated life, but never fully understand why as this scenario plays in the film’s backdrop. Of course, I do know that there is a 2013 documentary titled Salinger that discusses more on this subject, but one would think that this topic would be more in the foreground rather than in the background. I knew that the movie was gonna focus on Joanna’s journey and time at the agency, but a bit more insight in Salinger’s life and ways could’ve been more beneficial….at least in my opinion.
Also, there are a few times where Falardeau’s direction gets a little bit too carried away, with a few sequences that play out as superfluous in nature and don’t really amount too much beyond a couple context lines for characters. This is most notable within a fantasy / dream-like dance scene that, while I get where Falardeau is coming from, just seems quite out of place with the film entirely as if the director was looking for an excuse to use such a scene in the movie in order to pad out the film’s runtime.
The cast in My Salinger Year is pretty good for the most part, but what holds back a few of them back is in the film’s characterization and how it limits them (as characters) from being quite memorable and / or well-rounded. Naturally, leading the charge in the film is actress Margaret Qualley, who plays the central protagonist character of Joanna Rakoff. Known for her roles in The Leftovers, Fosse / Verdon, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Qualley has done somewhat smaller roles in her career, but stands in the spotlight in My Salinger Year. To be sure, the young actress is up for the task and provides a good acting talent throughout her performance as Joanna. Although, I could picture the role of Joanna in a few other actresses, including the likes of Lilly Collins. Still, Qualley does do a good job as Joanna. That being said, the character of Joanna (at least in the movie) is pretty much a generic and straightforward young female, whose youthful and naïve ways, acts as the beacon for the film’s dramatic moments as we see the development of her journey throughout. It’s a commonplace trope for a main character and it certainly does feel like that in this movie.
Behind her, actress Sigourney Weaver acts as the film’s anchor in playing the secondary role of Margaret, the ice-demeanor / head boss at the literary agency that Jonna works at and the main “gatekeeper” to understanding “Jerry” (Salinger)’s work. Known for her work in the Alien franchise as well as Avatar and Ghostbusters, Weaver has certainly proven herself to be a well-known actress throughout her career and serves as the seasoned veteran actress on this particular project. To be sure, Weaver is up to the task and plays the character role of Margaret with a sense subtle fun within her character’s short quips of her cold and aloof temperament. That being said, much like Qualley’s Joanna, the character of Margaret is still a somewhat knock off of Meryl Streep’s persona of Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. Still, Weaver is solid in the movie and does anchor the feature with her screen presence as I found all of her scenes in the movie to be terrific.
Actor Douglas Booth (Jupiter Ascending and Noah) proves a good supporting role within the character of Don, a youthful aspiring writer who Joanna finds a relationship in. Booth’s acting is fine and I get where the story was going with the character, but Don in My Salinger Year comes off as a bit too much in a conventional way that plays upon the “boyfriend relationship” in similar rom-com dramas out there. The rest of the cast, including actor Colm Feore (Thor and The Chronicles of Riddick) as Margaret’s close companion David, actress Seána Kerslake (Can’t Cope, Wont Cope and Dollhouse) as Jenny, actor Brian F. O’Byrne (Mercy Street and Million Dollar Baby) as Hugh, actor Yanic Truesdale (The Wedding Planners and Gilmore Girls) as Max, actor Hamza Haq (Look Kool and Transplant) as Karl, actress Leni Parker (Street Legal and 19-2) as Pam, and actor Theodore Pellerin (Boy Erased and Family First) as the unnamed boy from Winston-Salem, are delegated to minor supporting roles. Of course, some have larger roles than others, but most of the acting talents involved in this grouping get the job done with the material that is given to them. Although, some additional insight into a few could’ve helped explain certain key events.
Looking for something promising in her life, Joanna Rakoff settles into her job at a literary agency and begins to understand more about what she wants in life as well as some of the mystery surrounding J.D. Salinger in the movie My Salinger Year. Director Philippe Falardeau’s latest film takes an interesting look into a young woman’s life, expanding upon themes of identity and self-worth as well as creating the mythos within one of the literary world’s most reclusive man of today’s world. While the movie struggle into finds its own rhythm (feeling like a carbon copy of The Devil Wears Prada) and some surface level material, the film itself is still a gentle and easy to digest feature that has plenty to like, thanks to its source material and from its cast. Personally, I thought that this movie was somewhere between okay and good. It definitely held my interest as I was interesting, but it seems a bit formulaic and doesn’t quite reach the level that the film intends to be….as if something is holding its back. Still, its one of the films that has since earnest feeling. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a favorable “Rent it” as it should be seeing at least once for all of its cinematic prose, despite its faults. In the end, My Salinger Year as a wholesome feeling of young adults coming to terms with passions and responsibilities that, while doesn’t give much insight into Salinger’s personal life, still reinforces a bit of mystique to the elusive author’s legacy.
3.6 Out of 5 (Rent It)
Released On: March 5th, 2021
Reviewed On: March 29th, 2021
My Salinger Year is 101 minutes long and is rated R for language and some sexual references