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‘My Salinger Year’: Literary newbie’s memories of the author are the kind of wry worth catching

The endearing Margaret Qualley plays our starry-eyed heroine, working for a tough literary agent (Sigourney Weaver) in 1990s New York.

A newcomer at a literary agency (Margaret Qualley) is charged with replying to letters addressed to the “Catcher in the Rye” author in “My Salinger Year.”
IFC Films

Back in the ancient era of the 1980s and 1990s, Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, Johnny Depp, Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Andie MacDowell were appearing in major motion pictures. Cut to present day, and over the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen movies featuring:

  • Jack Kilmer (son of Val and Joanne).
  • Lily Rose-Depp (daughter of Johnny and French singer-model-actress Vanessa Paradis).
  • Maya Hawke (daughter of Ethan and Uma).
  • Margaret Qualley (daughter of Andie MacDowell and former model Paul Qualley).

Each of these second-generation actors has demonstrated impressive chops, with Qualley arguably the deepest talent, as evidenced by her fine performances in the HBO series “The Leftovers” and the FX miniseries “Fosse/Verdon,” and her scene-swiping work opposite Brad Pitt in “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.” In the borderline trifling but consistently amusing and wry period piece “My Salinger Year,” Qualley has the opportunity to carry the story, and she delivers an effortlessly endearing performance in a literary adventure that plays like “The Devil Wears Prada” meets “Can You Ever Forgive Me,” only at lower stakes.

With writer-director Philippe Falardeau putting a whimsical and at times almost dreamy spin on the memoir by Joanna Rakoff, “My Salinger Year” is set in 1995, when New York City was teeming with brick-and-mortar bookstores and getting published meant GETTING PUBLISHED, as in magazines and books you held in your hands, with pages to be turned. Qualley’s Joanna arrives in New York City with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a literary-minded Holly Golightly and a romanticized notion of soaking in the hustle and bustle of the city, living in a delightfully shabby apartment and writing in cafes. Step One: Joanna gets a job as an assistant to Margaret, the legendary (and legendarily tough) literary agent at a stuffy and traditional but still successful agency that has handled some of the great American authors of the 20th century, including one J.D. Salinger, who has been a recluse for some three decades but still occasionally rings the agency to talk to Margaret.

Joanna is bursting with enthusiasm. A real job at a real literary agency! Margaret, who terrorizes the office staff with sarcastic bon mots and slamming doors, tells Joanna to calm down and get to work — with the work including the responsibility of reading every single letter sent to Salinger and responding with one of a half-dozen form replies. (Ever since Mark David Chapman had a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye” in his possession when he murdered John Lennon, the agency has assigned someone to read every letter sent to Salinger in order to weed out potentially dangerous stalker types.) At times we see the letter-writers in the various locales, speaking the content of their writings to camera. It’s a nice touch that demonstrates the vast majority of these supposed ‘weirdos’ are just lost and lonely, and they relate to Holden Caulfield.

The tough literary agent Joanna works for (Sigourney Weaver) freely belittles her employees.
IFC Films

Joanna takes it upon herself to start responding to Salinger’s fans with personalized replies, which seems to help some of them and infuriate others and will get her fired if discovered. Tread lightly, Joanna! With Margaret often out of the office, Joanna develops something of a telephone friendship with Salinger (perfectly played by Tim Post as a voice on the phone and a figure seen in silhouette). Meanwhile, Joanna moves into an apartment with Don (Douglas Booth), who works at a socialist bookstore and is writing a novel and forever talking about writing a novel and takes Joanna to poetry readings and mansplains all things life and literary to Joanna, and he’s even worse than he sounds. We’re rooting for Joanna to find the time and inspiration to write, and we’re rooting for her to wake up to Don’s bull---- and get on with the best part of her life, which surely lies just ahead.

Sigourney Weaver is a fountain of dry wit (can you be a fountain of dry wit, let’s say yes) as Margaret, who can be absolutely dreadful in her dismissiveness but — SHOCKER — just might turn out to have a beating heart beneath the cloak of sarcasm. Theodore Pellerin is a standout as the Salinger fan known as “Boy from Winston-Salem.” Mostly, though, this is Margaret Qualley’s movie and Joanna’s story, and whether Joanna is dancing in a fantasy sequence or finding her voice as a writer and as a person, it’s a lovely and endearing performance.