A writer writes, but there’s no evidence that Joanna Rakoff can even type when she takes the job as an assistant working for literary agent Phyllis Westberg in “My Salinger Year.” Because Rakoff went on to pen a book-length memoir about her time working for Westberg, who represented reclusive writer J.D. Salinger, we can rest assured that she eventually achieved her goal, but her story is less like Lauren Weisberger’s novelized “The Devil Wears Prada” than it is Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which is to say, it’s not about the frustrations of unrequited ambition so much as it is about a kind of ill-defined yearning on the part of a bewildered young dilettante new to New York, played here by Margaret Qualley.
In late 1995, Joanna Rakoff landed a job for which countless readers would kill: She found herself in the position to answer a phone and hear, on occasion, Salinger’s voice on the other end. At times, this notorious hermit and presumed curmudgeon would proactively express curiosity about her, offering unsolicited advice on writing (“Don’t get stuck answering the phone. You’re a poet!”). But Joanna displays very little reciprocal interest in “Jerry,” as he’s known around the office. She’s never read “The Catcher in the Rye,” and she shows no intention of plugging that gap. She comes across as one of those kids too young to have heard of the Beatles, and too busy (doing what?) to bother giving them a listen.
Director Philippe Falardeau (who made one very good movie in the form of “Monsieur Lazhar”) has written Joanna Rakoff as well-read and intelligent, but Qualley has a dopey, nobody-home quality: The actor looks eager and ready to please, standing politely with her shoulders back and hands clasped like an obedient schoolgirl, but there’s nothing happening behind the eyes. Portrayed thus, Joanna comes across as childlike, naive and shockingly shallow. Though she’s no doubt plenty bright in person, close-ups in which she’s shown thinking are eerily unconvincing.
If Joanna wants to be a writer so badly, what’s stopping her? And if this is such a special job, why does she take it for granted? When the real-life Rakoff applied for the position, she didn’t even know what a literary agent did (they manage contracts and negotiations on behalf of writers), but felt that working for Westberg — whose name has been changed to Margaret, and whose identity Sigourney Weaver masterfully reinvents — would bring her closer to the world in which she pictured herself: the fabulous life of a published author.
The truth is considerably less glamorous, although Falardeau finds himself in a tricky predicament. The movie doesn’t show a complex enough representation of either adult life or the New York literary world to offer much depth to grownups (it’s far more engaged with Joanna’s romantic life and dream sequences set at the Waldorf Astoria), which means that “My Salinger Year” must have been intended to inspire young women for whom 1995 seems like the ancient past. That might explain why Joanna seems more excited about meeting YA author Judy Blume — another of Margaret’s clients — than she is by a visit from “Jerry.”
For teens with only an abstract idea of life in New York, the period of Joanna’s entry-level dues-paying likely plays as a kind of idealized bohemian bliss: She left her boyfriend in Berkeley and headed east to Manhattan, crashing with a friend (Seána Kerslake) before shacking up with a guy she meets in a socialist bookstore (Douglas Booth). Together they rent a run-down apartment for $560 a month (a steal, although it looks more like Montreal than any of New York’s outer boroughs). They go to poetry nights at the Panama Café and hold hands. He types his novel on a primitive computer, while she … well, she doesn’t write. Not really. That doesn’t seem to be part of her fantasy of one day being a writer, which must instead have more to do with giving readings, autographing books and getting the kind of mail Salinger receives, only addressed to her instead.
Salinger himself had no interest in reading the correspondence that arrived in piles from admirers, obsessives, movie producers and all those who identified with “Catcher” strongly enough to reach out. However, since authorities believed that his novel may have inspired Mark David Chapman (who was arrested with the book after killing John Lennon) and John Hinckley Jr. (another unstable reader, who took a shot at Ronald Reagan), the agency felt it prudent that someone should be on the lookout for warning signs. During her tenure in the office, monitoring Salinger’s mail became Joanna’s principal duty, as well as typing up form-letter responses to everyone who wrote.
Falardeau gives faces to these strangers, misfits all, staging little vignettes in which they dictate their letters in their natural environment (up-and-coming Canadian actor Théodore Pellerin features most often as “the boy from Winston-Salem”). Joanna is frustrated that she’s forbidden from sending more personal replies and breaks the rules at a certain point, with unexpected consequences. But apart from this tiny transgression, she’s too vanilla to be a very compelling character.
Working the agency job gave Rakoff material for a book, but even then, much of that feels trite and immature. The more captivating figure here is Margaret, her boss, and Weaver demonstrates how it’s done, conveying a woman of complex mysteries, paradoxes and layers — all the things Joanna seems to lack. Margaret abhors technology, expecting her employees to use Dictaphones and typewriters. “Computers make work for everyone,” she announces. Email has not yet become a fixture, a detail that should further amuse audiences too young to remember a world of analog communication. Even books must feel like relics to such viewers. Could a movie as soft as this really inspire them?
“Writers make the worst assistants,” Margaret opines at one point, and the real Rakoff would almost surely agree. She doesn’t bite the hand that fed/mentored her, the way Weisberger did in “Prada,” but she comes off even more impatient than her boss on-screen. Wielding a cigarette as a comedic prop, Weaver gets the laughs, and the pathos, too, without having to play it as big as Meryl Streep did — but then, Westberg was no devil, and certainly nowhere near as recognizable as Anna Wintour. The other office workers (a mix of Canadian and Irish actors that includes Brían F. O’Byrne and Colm Feore) don’t seem to mind that Joanna’s bad at her job. For his part, Salinger is downright friendly, even though we never get a proper look at him. It’s a running theme that writers are different than most people would probably imagine. But when it comes to accepting Joanna an author in the making, the film never convinces.