Michael Showalter: Hello, My Name Is Doris (2016)


The old lady and the cutie

In this oddball rom-com and vehicle for its star, Sally Field plays Doris, a woman in her sixties who becomes enamored of a twenty-something man newly arrived at her place of work, who shows an interest in her. The movie's drift isn't that such a relationship can work -- only that Doris's mistake in dreaming it can isn't a fatal one, and may just be a first step in a new direction. This message somehow makes us feel good. We like Doris and may even identify with her. The movie is a charmer, even if its tone is uneven and it leaves its protagonist's depths unplumbed.

Doris is a longtime office employee in a minor job, regarded as a back number. Recent events have upended her life. She has just lost her mother, whom she cared for for many years, in her cluttered house in Staten Island. Doris's decent brother Todd (Stephen Root) and his not-so-nice wife Cynthia (Wendi McLendon-Covey), want to clear out the clutter and sell the ouse. They have found a clutter therapist (Elizabeth Reaser) who will help Doris divide what Cynthia calls the "junk" into keep, donate, and dump categories. Meanwhile Doris has attended a session by a motivational counselor known as Willy Williams (Peter Gallagher). Mouthing his silly but upbeat motivational slogans, Doris becomes ready for a new life.

Enter John Fremont (Max Greenfield), a cute young up-and-comer at work moved to New York from the California branch to head a department, pressed into Doris's face on his first day in a chock-full elevator. Against unspoken convention, John immediately notices Doris. (She expects to be ignored.) He adjusts her glasses, which have gone askew. He sees they're "cat's eye" shaped. He's in touch with his feminine side, and later, when terribly distraught, goes out wearing the jeans of his newly-estranged girlfriend, Brooklyn (Beth Behrs). Brooklyn isn't from Brooklyn. Far from it: she's from Iowa, or somewhere in that nether land between coasts. Her parents named her "Brooklyn" because they admired Woody Allen. Why didn't they name her "Woody Allen"? asks Doris -- an example of the screenplay's cuteness and the quirk that keeps office coworkers from completely disdaining Doris. There's also her sprightly, funky-fashionista look, which takes the edge off her age and her plainness.

John, a strapping young man with a big smile, begins occasionally hanging out with Doris. Little fantasy interludes show that Doris dreams of each encounter with John tipping into romance, despite the age difference. Their friendship (or for her, romance) gets a sudden boost thanks to some very contemporary misbehavior enabled by Vivian (Isabella Acres), the thirteen-year-old granddaughter of Doris's brassy, old-leftie best friend Roz (Tyne Daly). Vivian shows Doris how to stalk John online, and encourages her to attend a concert of John's favorite, electronic punk, band, in a wild-colored outfit, which turns out to be just the thing, and enchants John (who's astonished and delighted by her presence) and also the band leader, who invites Doris to pose for his new album cover.

Is this just a little over the top? Yes, but Doris sports a colorful, sprightly look at all times; she wore it before John appeared. She is a hip old lady, and with her hair extensions, makeup, and original color combinations you'd think she was in the art department too, though she's only in accounting. But this makes us wonder if there might be more to her than the movie ever shows, as one certainly would hope.

If John misleads Doris, it's not intentional, and we're misled too. His manner toward her is so friendly that we're not quite sure he isn't ready for romance with her. This, and Doris' clothes, her success at the concert, her ability (however it may pain her) of being a confident when Brooklyn enters the scene and disappoints John, allow the move to avoid being yucky or a downer. It's giddy, a little risky, and a little foolish. Roz feels disappointed and betrayed when Doris skips their usual get-together and instead goes to John's big Thanksgiving party, which he gives to solidify new relationships. Again at that party, addressing the group, he shows his soft side, acknowledging how vulnerable he felt in his first days at the new job, how grateful to be welcomed. Doris gets drunk at the party and reveals too much to John. But Roz comforts her later.

All this is in the secure and happy realm of mainstream American comedy. Things develop more of an edge and threaten to spin off into confusion when it becomes time for Doris to move forward. When Todd and Cyndy and the clutter therapist come to the Staten Island house and push Doris hard, she balks. In fact she more than balks. She lets out a violent, long, animal wail of protest and anger that chases them away and takes the movie to a new, not at all happy place. This is really the only sign Doris has depths, but its one that leaves a haunting and indelible mark on the movie. We realize that Doris has done something really wrong, again with Vivian's help, in her online sabotaging of John's age-appropriate relationship, and we may wonder if Doris isn't, at bottom, more a pathetic loser than a quirky goofball.

Who is Doris? We never really know. When she and John have their most intimate heart-to-heart talk earlier, she reveals how she relinquished her one chance for love to be with her mother. She does let the anti-clutter trio come again, though. There is some vague hope for Doris. After all, this is the actress who played Norma Rae -- pluck personified.

Hello, My Name Is Doris, 95 mins., debuted at SXSW 15 Mar. 2015; a couple other festivals. It opened theatrically in the US 11 March 2016 .