'Hello, My Name Is Doris'
There are so many ways in which ‘Hello, My Name Is Doris’ could and perhaps should have gone wrong. It could have been too sickly sweet and fantastical. It could have been too cynically sarcastic and self-conscious. Yet somehow, the movie finds a nice sweet spot in the middle. It’s a feel-good movie for people who hate feel-good movies and a meta comedy for people who aren’t sure what “meta” means.
Credit likely comes down to two people: Director Michael Showalter applied all of his ironic self-conscious comedy to a sweetly human story, and Sally Field took advantage of her best role in years to remind us all what a hilarious and moving actress she can be when given a part worthy of her talents. The movie is an absolute delight and it’s hard to imagine anyone being unable to fall for its warm-hearted goofy charms.
Field stars as that Doris character who was polite enough to introduce herself in the title. She’s a spinster of sorts and a bit of a lost soul – a sixty-something woman who gave up her entire adult life to care for her mother and turn their shared house into a hoarder’s paradise. Now that’s all over. Mommy died and Doris is all alone.
While trying to figure out what her life could be for the first time, Doris is gobsmacked on an elevator by her hunky new co-worker John (Max Greenfield). The pretty boy stirs up all of her repressed romance novel fantasies, causing daydreams and good old-fashioned delusions. After her best friend’s (Tyne Daly) granddaughter introduces her to the joys of Facebook stalking, Doris kicks things up to regular stalking to make John her man. That means attending an electronic music concert where the hipster crowd all assume that Doris’ sincere thrift store 1960s outfit is ironically culturally appropriated like theirs. Next thing you know, Doris is hanging with the hipsters and even John shows her a little attention.
Funny stuff, right? Yeah, well, she’s also a real person, so this won’t end well.
That’s the best thing about ‘Hello, My Name Is Doris’. For about an hour, the movie is satirically and cringe-inducingly hilarious. Showalter sends his cast through a series of comedic humiliations that are absolutely brilliant and on point. Thanks to the fantasy interludes, he even gets a chance to do some of the ironic movie cliché comedy that he slathered all over the scripts for ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ and ‘They Came Together’. However, the movie would be merely a brilliant goof if that’s all he did with it. Instead, the script that Showalter co-wrote with Laura Terruso dares to be sincere, treats Doris like the sad woman in a funny situation that she is, and spins things around for actual and honest emotion. It’s a tricky balancing act to pull off, a type of comedy that could descend into schmaltz and never return. Thankfully, Showalter’s been mocking that type of lazy writing for so long that he falls for none of the traps and ends up with something genuinely touching.
Of course, so much of that success comes down to Sally Field, an actress who spent the last few years in the background of big movies whining, waiting, and fretting about Spider-Man or Lincoln or whomever. Now she finally has a role that demands all of her talents and she delivers. The cringe, quirk and physical comedy slips out of her with a graceful ease, scoring big laughs in a manner that most people might forget is how she started her career. Then when it comes time for her to bottom out and embrace the tragedy of her character, Field nails it and grinds the movie to a halt in the best possible sense.
‘Hello, My Name Is Doris’ is so effortlessly silly for so long, that it’s easy to ignore how sad and tragic the character truly is. Field makes that happen in a single scene and it takes time for Showalter to pull things together and be funny again, but it works. When the time comes for endings, we get the sweet one the movie needs with just enough ambiguity to avoid an unnecessary Big Movie Moment. Everyone around Field is strong as well (with a few of Showalter’s old comedy buddies like Kumail Nanjiani getting big laughs from the sidelines), but this is her movie and she carries it with ease.
Make no mistake, ‘Hello, My Name Is Doris’ is a light and fluffy little distraction of a comedy. It’s supposed to be. It’s very sweet and funny and tragic and true. But it’s not about anything spectacularly important, nor does it pretend to be. It’s about the all-too-common sadness of people who let life slip away and the painful yet small journey of changing for the better. That’s fine. It’s cute and completely relatable in a manner that has already gotten this tiny little comedy some unexpected box office success. With a little luck, Field will be remembered when awards season rolls around, because she deserves it. Even if not, this is a nice little comedy worth embracing.
In a weird way, it’s also a big step forward for Michael Showalter as a filmmaker. Sure, his collaborations with David Wain like ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ (and to a lesser extent his directorial debut ‘The Baxter’) have a cult cool and infinite rewatchability. But they’re also joke factories that, while smart, aren’t really about anything beyond other movies. In ‘Hello, My Name Is Doris’, Showalter proves his detached humor can be applied to a more painfully awkward and human story. If the guy can find a way to repeat that trick with as many laughs as his parodies, he just might deliver something special that’s remembered fondly for quite some time.