Tuesday, August 10, 2021

My Salinger Year: Coming of Age Among the New York Literati

Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley in My Salinger Year.

Margaret Qualley was frighteningly good as Pussycat, the Manson girl who hitches a ride with Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, and she brought sweetness and steadiness to the role of Ann Reinking in the TV miniseries Fosse/Verdon. (A trained dancer before she switched to acting, she’s been cast opposite Jamie Bell in a new movie about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.) But her approach to the central role in My Salinger Year, based on Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of working at the Manhattan literary agency Harold Ober Associates in the mid-1990s, doesn’t make sense. Joanna is an aspiring poet who leaves Berkeley (where she’s a graduate student) and a relationship with a gifted musician (Hamza Haq) to move in with a college pal (Seána Kerslake) and immerse herself in the New York literary world.  She’s fortunate enough to land a job as assistant to Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), a formidable force and a relentless boss whose most famous client is J.D. Salinger. Joanna is enchanted: since Salinger has decided to put out his final published work, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” a novella The New Yorker published in 1965, in hardback, the agency is a-twitter, and she even gets to speak to him on the phone – he’s unfailingly kind and encourages her writing. Besides typing letters from an ancient Dictaphone – Margaret isn’t on board with computer technology – the mainstay of her job is responding to the scads of letters from the notoriously reclusive Salinger’s fans and people who want things from him, like commencement addresses. (Tim Post plays Salinger, whose face we never see.) Joanna is whip-smart, imaginative and resourceful; she learns fast, she has a mind of her own and she isn’t cowed by Margaret. I haven’t read the book, but this version of the heroine – the screenplay was written by the film’s director, the Québecois Philippe Falardeau – comes across as a rather flattering presentation of its author in her twenties. Still, it’s a good part. But Qualley plays her as moony-eyed, desperate to please, with an appeasing smile plastered on her face and a tiny, blurry voice that almost makes her sound like she’s baby-talking.

Falardeau, who made a poignant film called Monsieur Lazhar a decade ago about an Algerian refugee who lands a job teaching sixth grade in a Montreal school, is a talented director, and My Salinger Year has a lot of charm. But the pieces don’t quite come together. The subplot about the letters Joanna has to answer fills up considerable screen time. She’s touched by some of them and irritated by others, and eventually she can’t resist the urge to answer one personally rather than send off the stock agency note. It’s from a rebellious high school student (Romane Denis) whose exasperated teacher has promised her an A if she writes to Salinger and can coax a reply out of him. Joanna’s counsel to the girl to take her schoolwork more seriously enrages her enough that she shows up at the agency office and protests. Denis is funny but the story isn’t plausible, and you can’t figure out why Joanna would have chosen this of all letters to answer. Falardeau turns a much more interesting letter writer, a persistent Salinger fan from Winston-Salem (Théodore Pellerin) who identifies with Holden Caulfield, into the premise of a recurring fantasy in which the young man talks to her, and even though Pellerin (who was the best thing about Never Rarely Sometimes Always) gives a disarming performance and the screen lights up whenever he appears, the conceit doesn’t work. It turns out that though she’s very well read, Joanna has never opened any of Salinger’s books; she doesn’t do so until most of the way through the film, though you would have thought that, enterprising and thorough as she is at her job, acquainting herself with his oeuvre would have been one of her priorities. (After all, there isn’t much of it.) And her romance with Don (Douglas Booth), a self-centered would-be writer who picks her up at a socialist bookshop and with whom she eventually moves in, isn’t convincing: when he shows up late in the movie, the musician she left behind in Berkeley turns out to be such a sweetheart that we have trouble buying the idea that the clear-headed heroine would put up with Don for more than a few weeks.

Weaver is perfectly cast as Margaret and though you expect her to be funnier, she’s wise to understate her performance; My Salinger Year isn’t meant to be a send-up of the quirky, aristocratic literary world (the way the New Yorker scenes in Bright Lights, Big City wanted to be). She has one moving scene, when Joanna takes her off guard by showing up at her apartment to convey condolences after Margaret suffers a devastating loss. Brían F. O’Byrne and Colm Feore add some welcome grace notes in supporting roles. The movie should be better than it is, but it has an unusual mix of qualities: it’s not quite tossed-off but unhurried, not profound yet not superficial. The way Falardeau lingers on the characters and the narrative and the milieu makes them compelling even when the movie falters. He made three pictures between Monsieur Lazhar and My Salinger Year, including one with Reese Witherspoon, but I’ve never heard of any of them. He shouldn’t be so far under the radar.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.




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