HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS
Director: Michael Showalter
Cast: Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Tyne Daly, Stephen Root, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Isabella Acres, Elizabeth Reaser, Beth Behrs, Natasha Lyonne, Kumail Nanjiani, Caroline Aaron, Peter Gallagher
MPAA Rating: (for language)
Running Time: 1:35
Release Date: 3/11/16 (limited); 3/18/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 17, 2016
It's quite easy to imagine the multitude of ways in which a film such this could have gone in the wrong direction. It could have played its central character, a single and socially awkward woman in her 60s with a bad habit of hoarding, as a joke. It could have treated the story's main hook, in which the woman develops an infatuation with a man a few decades her junior, as something weird and/or unappealing. The central character's actions in pursuing her feelings, which aren't always socially or morally acceptable, could have been creepy.
There are a lot of things that could have gone wrong with this material, but Hello, My Name Is Doris avoids all of the possible pitfalls. While a lot of credit for that belongs to director Michael Showalter and the screenplay by him and Laura Terruso (adapting her short film "Doris & the Intern"), there's no denying that a significant portion of the film's success belongs to Sally Field.
She stars as Doris Miller, the introverted hoarder with a crush on a man who is three decades younger than her. Doris isn't a joke. She's not weird. She's not creepy. She's a woman who hasn't had a chance to experience any kind of fulfilling life because of circumstances beyond her control. She has never had any control over own life, and now, she finds herself in a position to exert complete control over what the rest of her life will be like. It's little surprise that she has no idea where to even begin with such freedom.
Field's performance is as sympathetic as it is because she conveys the depth of feeling for the loss of one's potential—to not even have the opportunity to figure out what that potential could have been, really. There's a sense of genuine tragedy to this character, and it's of the sort that is, well, tragically ordinary—both in terms of how she has been fated to be ordinary and how common such a fate can be.
That quality is the constant undercurrent of Field's performance. One of the primary reasons her performance here is so exceptional is in the way she makes that undercurrent felt, even as the external nature of the character is so dissimilar from the pain beneath the surface. There's an endearing side to Doris, too, and much of that comes from the playful way Field approaches each new realization Doris has about herself and the world that she has basically ignored for most of her life. There's an almost childlike sense of discovery to these moments—the spark of temptation, the surprised joy of figuring out or getting something, the need to keep feeling these sensations.
We first notice it shortly after Doris gets her first look at John (Max Greenfield), a new employee at the company for which she works. She notices but avoids him on the street outside the building, but while in a crowded elevator, John begins some small talk. Doris is mostly unresponsive, and when John turns around, her eyes slowly drift downward. She spots a pencil in his bag and, after a beat of consideration, takes it. The thrill is clear—a mischievous act of super-petty theft, resulting in her obtaining a keepsake of man who has caught her eye.
It's a mild, defiant victory of independence for Doris after the death of her mother, for whom she cared over the course of over 40 years. Her brother Todd (Stephen Root) and his wife Cynthia (Wendi McLendon-Covey) want her to clean up the decades of random stuff that has amassed in the mother's home so that they can sell it.
Doris has become attached to the house and all of the junk within it. She doesn't want to leave, and Todd insists she begins to see a therapist (Elizabeth Reaser) to help with her issues.
The story follows Doris as her romantic attachment to John becomes an obsession, too. Her best friend Roz (Tyne Daly) worries that Doris is setting herself up for heartbreak, but Roz' teenage granddaughter Vivian (Isabella Acres) is more than happy to teach Doris the ways of a social networking website, modern lingo, and the particulars of electronic pop music. Doris starts to learn about John from his online profile and to take his interests as her own. She discovers that she actually appreciates the music, enjoys spending time with people (The folks of John's generation find her interest in their self-centered ways admirable, and it's amusing how she finds a knitting circle filled with women 30 years younger than her), and has fun experimenting with her wardrobe.
In this regard, Showalter and Terruso completely avoid another potential error in judgment. Doris may be doing these things to get closer to John, but that motive quickly becomes secondary to the fact that she genuinely likes these new experiences.
Her feelings for John may be a specific catalyst for her gradual transformation, but it's the transformation itself—not the possibility or impossibility of something romantic developing between the two characters—with which Showalter, Terruso, and Field are primarily concerned. The film doesn't try to analyze Doris' condition, and it really doesn't need to after a scene in which she tells John about a failed engagement 40 years earlier. Note the way Field's shift in pacing and tone while delivering the monologue ends up feeling like an accurate reflection of the course of Doris' entire life.
The film is warm and uncritical of Doris (perhaps too much so, especially after a specific transgression against John involving another woman, played by Beth Behrs). Hello, My Name Is Doris allows the character to breathe, to explore, and to make mistakes. It trusts that we'll like her, warts and all, and it's correct in the assumption.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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