Watching Hello, My Name is Doris, there is a palpable feeling that nobody else could have possibly played the central role except for Sally Field. The legendary actress’ latest performance is a staggering comedic achievement that elevates an otherwise formulaic indie rom-com above the pack. Which isn’t to say a generous amount of the credit shouldn’t also be allotted to director/co-writer Michael Showalter, who along with Laura Terruso have crafted an old-fashioned script that stops just shy of cloying at some points, and an inch short of preposterous at others. Even that deft tonal balance, though, seems more a byproduct of Field’s ability to bring the character to life than anything else. If you plunked her same character down in Transformers or The Human Centipede, I still believe she’d make it work. She’s just that good, the context doesn’t really matter.
Luckily, the context we get is conceptually interesting if not essentially familiar. Field plays an elderly woman named (SURPRISE!) Doris, whose even more elderly mother has just passed away. Having lived in her mother’s home her entire life, Doris seems unaware (or maybe just unaccepting) of how old she is, which makes for an at once tragic and hopeful characterization. Forced to live without the metaphorical umbilical cord for the first time in her life, Doris is confronted with the harsh reality of time, mainly through her infatuation with new coworker John (played by New Girl‘s Max Greenfield). There’s an ever-present sense of tragedy to her growing crush given how implausible a romantic relationship would be with such a vast age gap. Harold and Maude this is not. Instead, it’s a clear-eyed reminder that it’s never too late to come of age.
Doris is young at heart, almost childish at times, which is great fun to watch not to mention incredibly adorable. The dynamic verve Field brings to the role is incredible; she’s a singular ball of energy unstuck in time, alternating between the stubborn mania of a ten year old, the lusty yearnings of a teenager and the quiet melancholy of someone in their twilight years. In other words, Field brings out the full range of the human experience, and it’s in turn fascinating, pathetic, entertaining, depressing and hilarious.
It’s easy to forget that Greenfield is also an inspired casting choice. If Doris is a jumble of different ages and time periods, John is a singular man of his time, confident, hip and youthful. He’s a perfect counterpoint to everything Doris is and the way the two characters play off each other (with John of course oblivious to Doris’ desires) is cute and charming, while simmering with sad dramatic irony. With those two giving off some very real chemistry (if not the same type of chemistry on both ends), it’s a shame that the supporting cast is wasted on underused, cliched side characters. Nobody besides the two leads really impart anything of importance to the audience; they’re just tools to guide Doris and Max’s paths.
In terms of comedic style, the film falls snugly in between the two extremes Showalter has previously explored. It’s not as slight and cheesy as his sappy cliche worship The Baxter (which he wrote, directed and starred in ten years ago), nor does it utilize much of the detached, ultra-ironic anti-comedy of his non-directorial efforts including Wet Hot American Summer, the TV series Stella, and underrated rom-com spoof They Came Together. He manages to find a moderate approach here, leading t0 more earnest (and yes, sometimes more manipulative) moments punctuated with traditionally absurd Showalter dialogue. The level-headed oscillation between grounded and ridiculous makes this the most mature, most accessible and probably the funniest product of his career.
Even the all-consuming nature of Field’s performance can’t cover up the film’s rougher edges though, which manifest first and foremost in a plot that becomes clunky and overly sentimental in its back half. Among its sins is an overused plot device in which Doris posts something online under a fake name, as well as a hoarding subplot which is a few pancakes too syrupy. At a certain point, you can clearly see the entire plot outline Showalter and Terruso have neatly laid out, with each scene leading predictably and conveniently into the next. The script essentially boxes Field in and ties the box up with a nice bow, which is less than such an irrepressible, forceful character deserves. This isn’t to say there isn’t merit to the script outside of Doris’ character. Though it offers rather facile depiction of hipster millennials, it does a far better job broaching the generation gap than last year’s fallacious ‘millennials are the devil’ comedy While We’re Young.
Less important but distracting nonetheless are the movie’s lackluster production values, most obviously the fake-looking Facebook clone which becomes an important part of the plot. I get that they couldn’t get the rights to use the actual Facebook, but what they built looks fake and anachronistic. Meanwhile, an unconvincing large scale rave sequence emphasizes how budget restraints hindered Showalter’s ability to create authentic spaces for his authentic characters. On the flip side, I found the film’s use of music to be a high point. Some may see the score as just another twee retread of the usual indie fare, and they’d be totally right, but I thought hearing those familiar aspects in the context of such an unusual character refreshing.
Hello, My Name is Doris is probably destined to exist as a cult comedy rather than respected, oft-cited hit, though Field’s performance certainly assures that it won’t be forgotten in the same way The Baxter has. Showalter has learned from that film (which certainly reflected its thesis of mediocrity) and has brought an extraordinary character to life in the process. Though he gives Doris an irritatingly narrow world to inhabit, he at least knows how to take his hands off long that she can single-handedly command the screen. Had the budget been higher, the writer/director a bit more experienced and the release date fall, I have a feeling many would talk about her performance in the context of Academy Awards. For now, her Doris will remain the glorious little secret of those willing to put up with the unpolished, generically indie shell that encases her.
Score: 3.5 out of 5