May-December romance story is a terrific showcase for Field
The problem with a film like Hello, My Name is Doris, which features an eccentric character in a broadly comic situation, is that if not handled well, it runs the risk of making fun of both its central character and the situation in which it places her. Fortunately, writer/director Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer, The Baxter) avoids this trap by bringing sensitivity and graceful humor to the story of an older woman falling for a younger man, and, by doing so, provides Sally Field, as the titular Doris, with her best role in years.
Doris is a 60-something bookkeeper for a Manhattan clothing company who has spent the majority of her adult life living in her childhood home on Staten Island caring for her elderly mother, who has just passed away as the picture opens. Grieving and faced with a houseful of junk (the mother was a bit of a hoarder, to say the least), and at odds with her brother (Stephen Root) and sister-in-law (Wendi McLendon-Covey, a tad too over-the-top icy) about cleaning and selling the house, Doris attends a self-help seminar given by Willy Williams (Peter Gallagher, appropriately slick).
Willy’s main tenet is that “there are seven days in the week, and someday isn’t one of them,” and he encourages his devotees to see “impossible” as “I’m Possible,” mantras that motivate Doris enough to take action on the crush she has on the handsome, charming, and much, much younger John (an amiable Max Greenfield, New Girl, The Big Short), the 20-something new art director at her company. The film’s gentle ribbing of self-help seminars is one of its funniest bits, as it both highlights the absurdity of some of their methods while at the same time acknowledging that such encouragement can indeed be helpful to people needing a push.
To be sure, the premise lends itself to many cringeworthy moments. As written by Showalter and Laura Terruso (expanded from her 2011 short film Doris and the Intern), Doris is somewhat shy and socially awkward. Her timidity results in more than a few hilarious but uncomfortable Walter Mittyesque fantasy sequences, which Showalter makes all the more effective and wince-inducing by keeping us guessing as to their veracity just a beat or two too long.
Doris possesses a quirky, flamboyant style that she seems not to realize calls attention to herself (she favors loud colors, big bows, and cat eye glasses), and when she and John become friends and his Brooklyn-hipster friends take a liking to her, you worry that perhaps they’re only embracing her as a sort of retro-funky mascot. But that’s where the beauty of Showalter and Terruso’s screenplay and the sure-handedness of Showalter’s direction comes in: the picture mocks those you think would make fun of Doris more than it mocks Doris herself.
Similar to While We’re Young, Noah Baumbach’s generational-conflict comedy from last year, Showalter’s picture gently skewers millennial DIY hipsters at the same time it questions the superiority of the older generation. Some of the funniest scenes in the movie involve John’s favorite band, the awesomely named Baby Goya and the Nuclear Winters, and Showalter and Terruso’s sharp writing gives us numerous laugh-out-loud moments (a poem read by one of John’s pretentious friends, for example, ends with the line “thread count unknown”).
How the story unfolds is best left for the viewer to discover, but suffice to say that although some stereotypes are definitely at play, they aren’t so prevalent as to be distracting. In fact, Fields takes what might have been a caricature in lesser hands and turns Doris into one of the most three dimensional, unique characters in recent memory (comparisons to Lily Tomlin’s performance in last year’s Grandma are apt). In three moving and especially well-directed scenes that stand out from the more comic tone of the rest of the picture, Fields, in an exquisitely guileless and heartbreaking performance, gives us a glimpse into Doris’s inner life, with all its fears, regrets, and struggles. Watch for the scene in which she tells young John the story of an early romantic relationship, the scene in which she and her brother discuss their different life paths (and props to Stephen Root here, too, as he holds his own against Field in an exceptionally emotionally charged scene), and the scene in which Doris and her old friend Roz (Tyne Daly) have a post-Thanksgiving hash-it-out conversation.
Moments like these keep the film from falling too far into farce, and make for a nuanced, rich, thoughtful character study that respects the individuality of all its key players. As a meditation on both the joys and sorrows of growing older, as well as the nature of relationships – romantic, familial, and platonic – the picture more than succeeds, bringing grace, humor, and a fresh perspective that Doris herself would no doubt appreciate.
Hello, My Name is Doris opens today at Bay Area theaters.