Adapted from Joanna Rakoff’s memoir, My Salinger Year (known as My New York Year in the UK) is a watchable little film that strolls along with a quiet literary charm. But what is it? It has neither the laughs of a comedy nor the emotional stakes of a drama, and it can hardly be called a biopic because who’s heard of Joanna Rakoff? Like The Artist’s Wife, that recent muse drama starring Bruce Dern and Lena Olin, My Salinger Year is a low stakes affair about the strain of creativity. This is a superior piece of work though; lighter, airier, easier on the eyes. It was shot entirely in Montreal, but you get a strong West Village vibe with its coffee shops and cobbled streets.
This is New York in the summer of 1995, but you’d hardly know it for Joanna (Margaret Qualley) has landed a job at Harold Ober Associates, one of the city’s most antiquated literary agencies and representatives of JD Salinger. The décor, a mass of wood cladding and green filing cabinets, is a veritable time capsule, and Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), the boss, scorns the nascent digital world, “Computers just make more work for everyone.” As Margaret, Weaver takes cues not only from Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada but also her 39-year-old self in Working Girl. She’s the proverbial battleaxe, haughty and patrician, yet her force is blunted by age and a creeping irrelevance. Like a royal servant, she toils to uphold Salinger’s mystique, as do her entourage of prissy sycophants, all of them well versed in bookish pomposity.
Margaret tasks Joanna with answering the fan mail of their star client, ‘Jerry’ Salinger. It is a strictly administrative role, but Joanna is enchanted all the same. Indeed, she is a charming foil to Margaret’s waspish mien, sweet and nervous but not without assertion. Qualley plays it just right, never overplaying Joanna into some wide-eyed small girl in the big city stock character.
For some viewers, all of this will be incidental to the aura of JD Salinger, which looms over everything. We hear his voice and we see his figure, but we never see him directly. This is an appropriate choice from director Phillippe Falardeau, who also wrote the screenplay. By continuing Salinger’s mystique, Falardeau maintains a semblance of intrigue in this endearing yet rather feeble piece of work.