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My Salinger Year review – bafflingly insipid Berlin opener clunks hard

Based on Joanna Rakoff’s memoir, this simpering knock-off of The Devil Wears Prada is so wet you could shoot snipe off it Wide-eyed ingenue … Margaret Qualley in My Salinger Year. Photograph: Berlin film festival There’s an unfortunate tradition at Berlin of beginning with a film that clunks hard enough to smash concrete. So it…

Based on Joanna Rakoff’s memoir, this simpering knock-off of The Devil Wears Prada is so wet you could shoot snipe off it

Wide-eyed ingenue ... Margaret Qualley in My Salinger Year.






Wide-eyed ingenue … Margaret Qualley in My Salinger Year.
Photograph: Berlin film festival

There’s an unfortunate tradition at Berlin of beginning with a film that clunks hard enough to smash concrete. So it has proved with this bafflingly insipid, zestless, derivative film – a simperingly coy knock-off of The Devil Wears Prada without the sexiness and fun, and so wet that in the immortal words of Molesworth, you could shoot snipe off it.

It is based on Joanna Rakoff’s 2014 memoir My Salinger Year, all about her temp job at the New York literary agency Harold Ober Associates in the 90s, when she was entrusted with the banal but also near-sacred task of dealing with the fan letters sent to the agency’s most famous and reclusive client: JD Salinger – sifting through them for dangerous weirdos, sending out the standard brush-off reply, and making sure that no one finds out his home address. Rakoff had her own privileged encounter with the great man, experiencing the global love he inspired and inspires, and got a new perspective on what it means to love writers, writing and reading. The story was first developed as a wry, witty piece for BBC Radio 4, then as a widely enjoyed book. Canadian film-maker Philippe Falardeau has adapted Rakoff’s book and directs.

Margaret Qualley (the jailbait “Pussycat” who gets a ride from Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) plays Joanna, the wide-eyed ingenue with a college education who somehow blags a job at a top literary agency, working for the formidable Margaret, played by Sigourney Weaver – Salinger’s agent and intimate friend. Margaret is cantankerous, demanding, hilariously opposed to computers; she is sometimes gently tolerant of Joanna and sometimes really mean. Joanna is given the Salinger fan-letter task, even heart-stoppingly taking his calls – and his correspondents’ earnest personal messages are wearyingly dramatised in monologues direct to camera. Joanna begins to wonder if she might break the rules and schoolmarmishly respond to one or two. Meanwhile, she has boyfriend worries and dares to visit Margaret at her home.

The provincial-making-it-in-the-big-city genre is well established, but the influence of The Devil Wears Prada is so clear it almost begins to feel like a upscale homage. It suffers in comparison because The Devil Wears Prada is forthright and funny with Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep delivering fireworks. Perhaps Qualley and Weaver could have done the same with a sparkier script. But the all-important master-servant hero-worship dynamic is always stymied: diverted on to the semi-unseen and necessarily unresponsive Salinger.

The film is stuck with a kind of gaze-averting solemnity when it comes to the star of the show, who can never be seen, just glimpsed. This arguably reflects Joanna’s subservient relationship, but it means we never get any insight into Salinger beyond the thwarted-fan view and there is no real insight into her or Margaret either. The only way is up for Berlin 2020 now.

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