Sometimes a movie can sneak up on you, and there is no better example of this than Hello, My Name is Doris (opening today), a rare gem of a romantic comedy that is being released smack-dab in the middle of the Winter…a time that is usually reserved for throw-away films that the studios are wanting to dump and quickly bury before the thaw that comes with Spring and Summer blockbusters. But don’t judge it by its release date: Hello, My Name is Doris and its star, Sally Field, have set the bar quite high, and right now, I can’t imagine this film and her performance not landing somewhere on the year-end radar.
When you see that a film is directed and co-written by Michael Showalter, your mind goes immediately to zany, ludicrous comedy: Showalter is an alum of MTV’s The State, and best-known as a writer/actor on similarly sophomoric (a compliment) shows like Childrens Hospital, and Wet Hot American Summer. You may be surprised then, like I was, to discover that Hello, My Name is Doris is not at all in the same comedic vein as these other efforts. It is a sweet, touching portrait of an aging woman aching to live her life, but who is afraid of letting go. I have been known to be a sucker for “coming-of-age” movies, but never have I seen one that focuses on a senior citizen. It’s never too late, apparently. Showalter leans the film on the strengths of his lead actress, and she never lets him down.
Sally Field plays the title character, who at age 70, plays a character every bit of that age. Doris is the role that aging women in Hollywood always talk about not being available, the sort of role that they want to see more of. She is a nuanced, complex character the likes of which they have yearned for. If only there were more women in film like Doris Miller.
When we meet Doris, her mother has just died. We learn that Doris’s entire life was dedicated to taking care of her mom, and she has sacrificed much along the way. Doris is an introvert and a hoarder, but she is also a bubbly-positive personality. She wears eccentric clothes and normally can be seen with a giant bow in her hair, along with two pairs of glasses. She’s the crazy-cat lady, and even now after her mother is gone, she does not intend to allow this event to consume her.
But she may not be allowed to move on at her own pace. Doris’s brother Todd (Stephen Root) and his bitchy wife (Wendi McLendon-Covey) are trying to prod Doris to move out of their mother’s home, and to get rid of all of the stuff within it. Doris is reluctant to part ways with these material things. Root plays the character not as an evil sibling look to cash in on mom’s inheritance, but as a concerned brother trying to look out for his family’s best interests, despite the impatience of his wife.
Things at work are not much better for Doris. She has kept her desk job due to her longevity with the company, but pretty much everyone around her represents new blood. Doris’s world is turned upside-down when she meets her hunky – much younger – new manager, John (Max Greenfield, from FOX’s “The New Girl”) and this gets her excited in more ways than one.
Inspired by her best friend Roz (Tyne Daly), Roz’s granddaughter Vivian (Isabella Acres) and a self-help expert (Peter Gallagher), Doris decides to take life by the horns. Setting up a fake Facebook profile (with Vivian’s help) and doing a bit of online stalking, she attempts to pursue John romantically…despite him being nearly 40-years younger. And why not? The word “impossible,” depending on how you see it, can also mean “I’m possible.”
To say that it’s rare to see a movie where an older lady is romantically involved with a younger man, is more than an understatement. And to see it tackled in a real way is altogether refreshing.
This is not a laugh-out-loud comedy, and although it follows some very familiar beats, this is not your average rom-com either. From start to finish, Showalter creates a sugary-sweet, poignant energy that the film never loses all the way through its hopeful and realistic conclusion. Best of all, the subject is not treated as “weird,” “taboo” or even funny the way that it probably would have in your average Hollywood comedy. Doris just refuses to be kept in a box, refuses definition, and I think the same can be said for this little film.
Sally Field, by the way, is a revelation, even considering her illustrious career. This may be her best work ever. She creates Doris as a vulnerable, goofy old lady, capable of real emotion and fascinating depths. Several daydream sequences give her a chance to show off her comedic skills, and at other times she is given juicy dramatic scenes that she bites right into, chews up and spits out. In-between, her subtle grace makes us fall in love with Doris and keeps us rooting for her at all times.
It’s only March, but Sally Field deserves Oscar consideration for her role. She’s that good.
Scattered around the peripherals are talented comedians like Kyle Mooney, Kumail Nanjiani and Natasha Lyonne, none of which are given too much depth but who round things out nicely. No, this is purely Doris’s film. It’s also a true “branch-out” film for Michael Showalter, who shows he is much more capable as a writer/director than maybe he’s been given credit in the past.
Hello, My Name is Doris is the first surprisingly great film of 2016. The material feels fresh and familiar all at once, and never does it treat its protagonist unkind. By the way, It is not surprising that Field was capable of portraying such a rich character…more so that she was given the opportunity in the first place given the limited amount of quality roles for older women in Hollywood. Let this be Exhibit A as to the sort of script the movie industry needs moving forward.
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Run Time: 1 hours, 35 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Beth Behrs, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Stephen Root, Natasha Lyonne
Co-Written & Directed by Michael Showalter (The Baxter)
Opens locally on Friday, March 18, 2016 (check for show times).