Sally Field never went away. Her performance as Mary Todd Lincoln in Spielberg’s Oscar winner still lingers these years later. So why does her virtuosic work in Hello, My Name Is Doris feel like such a resounding comeback?
I suppose it’s because, like Lily Tomlin in the similarly gracious dramedy Grandma, meaty roles for women of a certain age remain endangered properties on studios’ production slates. We’ve gotten so accustomed to seeing these gifted actors sequestered to the periphery of ensemble pieces — usually sidelined as ineffectual matriarchs — that we need a movie like this one to remind us how many instruments exist in their emotional orchestras, should a good enough conductor be willing to dust them off.
The man with the baton, in this case, is co-writer and director Michael Showalter, a master of short-form cult comedy (Stella, The State, Wet Hot American Summer and its attendant prequel series). Eschewing the bonkers sketch-like structure of most of his oeuvre, Hello, My Name is Doris is Showalter’s most domesticated feature yet, but it’s possibly his most impactful. It shifts elegantly from broad comedy to aching drama at a moment’s notice, with Field’s linchpin of a lead performance largely to thank.
Her Doris is a homely data-entry drone in an anonymous corporate office in Manhattan who returns nightly to a hoarder’s casa on Staten Island. Her mother — with whom she shared a life, cats and a home chockablock with sentimental debris for as long as she can remember — has recently died, leaving her with an oversized house that her brother (Stephen Root) impatiently pushes her to sell.
Her attire is so dreadful it eventually becomes hipster-chic: owlish librarian’s glasses on top of other glasses, ghastly sweaters, an indecisive cluster of cheap gold necklaces. A motley bow-tied headband calls attention to her Sarah Palin raven’s nest of a hairdo so that she always looks wrapped, like a gift nobody wants. She needs a boost of inspiration to give her life meeting, and she receives it thanks to her BFF Roz (a hilarious Tyne Daly), who drags her to a lecture by platitude-spouting self-help guru Willy Williams (Peter Gallagher, the blocky dreamboat of the over-50 set). His signature axiom is “there are seven days in a week, and ‘someday’ isn’t one of them.”
Willy’s optimism provides Doris with the courage, misguided or otherwise, to pursue a romance with John Fremont (Max Greenfield), the fresh-faced millennial co-worker newly hired from her firm’s California office. With the help of Roz’s 13-year-old daughter, Doris creates a catfish profile of a younger woman so she can gain access to John’s Facebook page. She discovers he likes tapas and an electro-pop band called Baby Goya and the Nuclear Winters (a cheeky fictional project fronted by Bleachers’ indie heartthrob Jack Antonoff). So she buys the CD, places it conspicuously on her desk at work, “coincidentally” bumps into John at Baby Goya’s neon-filled NYC club gig, becomes a surprise hit with John’s artisanal generation and so on — with Doris growing increasingly attached, and blissfully unaware that John doesn’t feel the same way.
A lesser director would prop up contemptible or callous antagonists to Doris’ ambitions so that we empathize only with her, but Showalter and co-writer Laura Terruso are smarter than that. Brooklyn (Beth Behrs), John’s age-appropriate girlfriend, is charming, likable and realistically flawed; even Doris’ pushy siblings are fundamentally correct in their desires to shake the cobwebs of her past out of her muddled home.
But it’s Field who deserves the most credit for finding every shade of nuance in her complicated heroine, communicating just how crippling it was for her to sacrifice everything to be her mother’s caregiver, and why it’s important she has surrounded herself with Mom’s emotional detritus.
Hello, My Name Is Doris is not a revelation, but it does just about everything right, even confounding our expectations from time to time. It’s about nothing less than a late-blooming self-actualization, finding sweetness without sentimentality, hopefulness without sacrificing harsh truths. The aspirational guru may sometimes be right, but so is the cynic.
HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS. Director: Michael Showalter; Cast: Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Tyne Daly, Beth Behrs, Stephen Root, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Elizabeth Reaser, Peter Gallagher, Natasha Lyonne, Kumail Nanjiani; Distributor: Roadside Attractions; Rating: R; Opens: Today at Cobb Downtown at the Gardens, Movies of Delray, Living Room Theaters and Cinemark Palace in Boca Raton, Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale, AMC Aventura 24 and Regal South Beach 18