Sometimes a movie becomes more interesting when you ask why that particular group of people chose to make it.
Hello, My Name is Doris is one of those times, a confusingly straightforward little dramedy starring Sally Field and directed by The State and Stella alumni Michael Showalter, one of the pioneers of the ‘90s alt-comedy movement. Field has declared openly that her motivation for playing Doris stems from the lack of interesting roles she finds as she gets older, which makes sense. Why would Showalter, who until now has approached his work at arm’s length and behind a shield of irony, choose to take on a comedy about loneliness and aging as his first feature-length directorial work in over 10 years? What is it about this particular story that spoke to him? The answer becomes clear as you watch the film: Michael Showalter has gotten older and in doing so, he has discovered the notion of sincerity. He’s just not quite sure what to do with this new sensation.
Sally Field is the titular Doris, a lonely woman in her 60s who works as an accountant in a trendy NYC fashion firm and lives alone as a hoarder in her late mother’s house on Staten Island, much to the irritation of her brother and sister-in-law (Stephen Root and Wendi McLendon-Covey). Doris develops a crush on John (New Girl’s Max Greenfield), a much younger and cooler art director in her office, and uses the advice of her best friend’s teenage granddaughter to catfish him with a fake Facebook profile. As she learns more about John’s tastes, the two become friends, leading Doris into the embrace of a world of young white indie kids. The hipsters immediately latch onto her with genuine interest, but the kind of genuine interest that comes with a veneer of sardonicism.
Hello, My Name is Doris feels almost anachronistic in its comedy, like someone let a sketch from Kids in the Hall or Upright Citizen’s Brigade go on way too long, and the sadness slowly started to seep in. (This is a pretty good summation of Showalter himself.) Doris herself feels reminiscent of Amy Sedaris’ Jerri Blank from Strangers With Candy, with a tiny bit of Megan Mullaly thrown in for good measure. This makes a bit more sense in context, as many of the side characters are 20-somethings and part of the current false-90’s-nostalgia wave.
Still, the film mood-swings wildly from heartwarming and smile-inducing to feeling more than a little mean-spirited, often in the span of two scenes. Doris’ awkwardness and anxiety is charming and endearing one moment, off-putting and frustrating the next, making her difficult to root for as a protagonist. And there’s still an “old person learns what Facebook is” scene, in 2016, without a hint of irony or winking at the audience at the one time it was actually needed.
Field perseveres through the film’s weaker bits, clearly relishing the chance to step into Doris’ shoes and explore the depths of her loneliness and delusions.
There are several small touches which allow her to disappear into the character, like her reading glasses persistently set on top of her regular glasses. Yet the movie only allows her a few scant moments to demonstrate the range that she’s known for. Her best moments are opposite of Greenfield, whose confidence and charm work to combat Field’s portrayal of Doris’ discomfort and shyness. There are layers to their performances and their character interactions, which is welcome in a film which could easily feel shallow. Other highlighted performances include brief appearances by Kyle Mooney as a foul-mouthed concert photographer, Peter Gallagher delightfully working his tongue around platitudes as a motivational speaker, and Tyne Daly as Doris’ best friend and part-time enabler.
Hello, My Name is Doris tries to be many things and only succeeds at a few of them. As an analysis of youth and current hipster cultures, it’s too afraid to bite the hand that feeds it and is basically useless while Noah Baumbach’s films exist. As a dysfunctional Harold and Maude-type relationship drama, it’s clunky, but I’m glad it exists in a world full of teen girl characters banging guys 10 years older than them. But thanks to Field’s love of this role, it succeeds the most when viewed as a basic character study. But since this is a movie about a man’s mid-life crisis thinly disguised as a movie about a woman’s mid-life crisis, it’s debatable whether the character we’re studying is Doris or Michael Showalter.
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