Sally Field Almost Triumphs Over Quirk in Hello, My Name Is Doris

Why is it that little movies about being out of step so often wind up feeling the same? Not long into Michael Showalter’s Hello, My Name Is Doris, a comedy about a misfit frump pining for a much younger hunk, the unlikely target of the heroine’s affections muses to his friends, “She’s weird, but she’s a good kind of weird.” Can you name an indie comedy of the Sundance era where some variation of that line wouldn’t fit? For decades, “good kind of weird” has been the unspoken thesis of precious, life-affirming comic studies of good-hearted muddlers maybe starting to get themselves together.

What’s of interest in Doris isn’t the story our misfit shuffles through or the lessons that she learns; it’s the pleasure of seeing Sally Field fit herself into that misfithood. The script, by Showalter and Laura Terruso, offers occasional laughs and insights, but the film belongs to Field. The effect is like watching a beloved singer cover something familiar yet unexpected, like that time Dolly Parton and her bluegrass fellas took on Collective Soul’s “Shine.” The material isn’t fresh, but she owns it.

Not that’s Field’s Doris is credible as a character. She’s a fussed-over concoction of too many traits, the kind of cocktail whose base liquor gets lost among the splashes of quirk. We meet Doris at her mother’s funeral and quickly learn that, beneath vintage-librarian sweater ensembles as color-streaked as head-shop posters, she’s a shy Staten Island hoarder/cat lady/romance novel addict. She toils in accounting at a hip fashion company in the city, where she shies away in her cubicle and enthuses about office supplies. (She loves Staples.)

Her coworkers and the film itself fail to notice that her fashion is spectacular, that her look is brash rather than mousy, that actual New Yorkers would be eager to get to know her. Instead, the movie settles in for awkward comedy about Doris crushing on gentle lug John (Max Greenfield), the new art director for the company catalog — and Showalter seems to expect us to be surprised when it turns out that the new people Doris meets actually find much about her to adore.

Before that, though, Doris insists its heroine is a dope. She swoons and stammers upon first meeting John in the elevator, and I’m sorry to report that Showalter stages several parodic fantasy clinches meant to suggest the inner life of a Harlequin reader. Hundreds of thousands of American women devour romance novels, and it’s glibly insulting to insist that they must believe them — that dear Doris would stand stupefied before a handsome man, briefly convinced he’s taking his shirt off and professing his love. Has she never bumped into a looker on the streets of New York? The joke isn’t punching down so much as punching sideways, from one set genre to another: Is the impassioned monogamy of romance novels any more false than the uplifting humanism of crowd-pleasing indie comedy?

Field can’t make it all make sense, but she does make it diverting, even pleasurable. Doris’ mouth hangs slack and wide as she comes out of her second heated reverie, and she’s frozen in place until, with a screwball flourish, she recovers and jaunts stiffly away, dignified even in embarrassment. It’s hilarious, though such go-for-broke comedy later makes it hard to believe Doris’ breakdown when her brother (Stephen Root) and a bizarrely unethical therapist (Elizabeth Reaser) turn up at her overstuffed home to make her throw away some junk. Field commits to each moment and wills many into excellence, even if they don’t always seem to go together in the same movie. Her goofball pogoing to her crush’s favorite band is as potent as her quiet, drunken shame when a party lets her get close to him for real. Often I laughed or winced right on cue, but not even for a breath did I think of Doris as a person rather than a performance. (Field is surrounded by a crack cast, including Tyne Daly as Doris’ best friend from the neighborhood and Peter Gallagher as a fatuous inspirational speaker.)

The best scenes set an emboldened Doris loose against a jokey burlesque of millennial Brooklyn. The borough comes across here something like a grubbier, friendlier version of the Los Angeles party scene in Annie Hall — “I forgot my mantra” is now “I teach at a gay preschool in Park Slope.” The satire is warm, and the joke becomes that, in superficial ways, Doris and her vintage finery fit right in. The drama follows, sometimes with truth in it: In her 60s, she can be their friend, their tchotchke, their mascot, but she probably can’t be their lover. Turns out, young people prefer to hook up with other young people. That this comes as news to her is just another of the reasons why this lively, engaging comedy never comes to full life despite Field’s exuberance. What are we supposed to get from watching a naif learn a lesson we already know?  

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