Based on the memoirs of Joanna Rakoff, an assistant at a storied New York City literary agency, My Salinger Year seeks to explore what causes readers to become so emotionally connected to certain books while simultaneously serving as an inspirational tale of a young poetess finding her way with the help of the famously reclusive Catcher in the Rye author, JD Salinger. It technically does both, but not particularly well. My Salinger Year’s end result is a by-the-books memoir adaptation that comes across as dull and derivative, lacking a creative spark.
Joanna (Margaret Qualley) is an aspiring writer who moves to NYC from Berkeley on a whim, believing that simply being in the city that has effortlessly birthed so many iconic novels would cause inspiration to seep in through osmosis. But she also has to earn a living, so she takes a job at a historic literary agency under the severe eye of Margaret (Sigourney Weaver, who could play this sort of intimidating yet ultimately supportive boss in her sleep.) She’s trusted with very little at first: she’s assigned to the Salinger mail, where she’s tasked with sending form letters rejecting fan mail from JD Salinger’s many admirers. She becomes fascinated by the people who write to him, and it isn’t long before she, against her better judgment, responds with decidedly non-form letters.
These bizarre, lonely Salinger enthusiasts, all compelled for one reason or another to let him know exactly what his novels and characters have meant to them, are the most interesting part of My Salinger Year. One could imagine a fascinating series of extended vignettes about their lives that might breathe a little life into the proceedings. But it barely gives them a second thought. (Also, it refuses to engage with its namesake on any substantive level.)
Salinger’s most fervent admirer, played by Théodore Pellerin, is the only one who gets more than a brief moment of screentime. Whenever he appears, he brings melancholy energy that invigorates what is otherwise a pretty uneventful affair. No disrespect to Joanna: her life as presented here seems like an exciting one to have lived, but it doesn’t make for a thrilling viewing experience. Margaret Qualley is sweet, and that’s about it. Certainly intelligent. But you could fill an ocean with films about young, naive aspiring writers trying to make it in New York City, and My Salinger Year doesn’t do nearly enough to distinguish itself.
Even the production design is uninspiring. This is supposed to be New York in the 90s — they had every opportunity to go bold and really make a splash if they wanted to. But although it’s a period film, it never feels like it. Aside from a few remarks about the horrors of computers, My Salinger Year offers a uniquely beige experience that takes the city of New York, so often the subject of every cliche about a city being its own character in a film, and turns it into a complete non-entity. It’s even more galling when you consider that it’s supposed to be magical: Joanna references her childhood experiences in the city and how much it means to her as an artist. But it’s all just so bland.
This is perhaps being a little unfair to My Salinger Year. It’s not bad, after all. It’s just the sort of quiet, inoffensive, unimaginative film that you watch for two hours, mentally note that you should probably go to more indie bookstores, and then promptly forget about it forever. It probably does enough to ensure that Margaret Qualley will continue her upward Hollywood trajectory, reaffirm exactly how perplexing it is that Douglas Booth (playing Joanna’s utterly useless and uncharismatic boyfriend here) continues to turn up in the strangest of places, and remind the world that Sigourney Weaver’s stern, wildly intimidating demeanor can effortlessly brighten up any mediocre drama. That’s it. Is that enough? Probably not. But that’s My Salinger Year.