Amid the increasing awareness of sexism and ageism in Hollywood, a small number of low-budget filmmakers have caught onto the fact that they can get major talent for their movie at a reasonable price if they’re willing to build it around a lead actress who’s been unfairly buried because of her age. Hence the vehicles we saw last year for Blythe Danner (I’ll See You in My Dreams), Lily Tomlin (Grandma), and Charlotte Rampling (45 Years). There are now enough of these movies that Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren don’t have to play all the lead roles in this age range, and thank God for that. Sally Field, who turns 70 this year, now joins their ranks with Hello, My Name Is Doris, a comedy that I’ll say this for: It’s better than the belated My Big Fat Greek Wedding sequel, which is this week’s other new movie for the older crowd. If only it weren’t so regrettably high on quirk.
She portrays Doris Miller, an accountant at a New York City clothing company whose single, childless life is suddenly jolted out of its rut when a handsome, decades-younger man named John (Max Greenfield) joins the firm as its new art director. Smitten, Doris has no idea how to talk to the new guy until her best friend’s 13-year-old granddaughter (Isabella Acres) sets up a fake Facebook account for her, allowing her to feign interest in all the things he’s interested in. Even though the girl’s grandmother (Tyne Daly) tells Doris that her cause is hopeless, she soldiers bravely on.
Adapting this from Laura Terruso’s one-note 2011 short film Doris & The Intern, director/co-writer Michael Showalter has tried to expand this into feature length, but his own treatment only creates more problems. We’re meant to find Doris lovable, which is one reason why Field has been cast in the role, but for too much of the movie she’s just weird and lonely. We need more of a reason to root for a character. Doris is set up as someone with severe mental issues — she’s a hoarder who refuses to sell or move out of her mother’s house, where she spent decades taking care of her sick mom — but the filmmaker behind The Baxter and Wet Hot American Summer doesn’t know how to deal with such a heavy subject. Midway through, Doris melts down when a psychotherapist (Elizabeth Reaser) tries to help her get rid of some of her useless stuff, and while it’s played well by Field, the scene still feels like something out of a different movie.
As he did with The Baxter, Showalter manages to assemble a terrific cast and somehow waste them. Stephen Root and Wendi McLendon-Covey turn up as Doris’ concerned brother and fed-up sister-in-law. They contribute nothing. Doris’ co-workers are played by Natasha Lyonne, Kumail Nanjiani, and Rich Sommer. They do little except spout expositional dialogue. Peter Gallagher’s cameo as a motivational guru raises nary a laugh. Beth Behrs is saddled with the particularly ungrateful role of John’s girlfriend and remains inert even after she introduces Doris to her mostly lesbian knitting circle. Greenfield, reduced to a female-fantasy figure, shows none of the goofy charm that he brought to TV’s New Girl. As for Field, she has some good moments like the one I mentioned above and also a bit where she starts moving around to an electro-pop CD by a band that John likes. (That fictitious band’s music is made by Jack Antonoff, who also portrays its lead singer.) Unfortunately, there’s a bit too much neediness and pleading for attention in the performance. Perhaps I’m simply immune to Field’s appeal — and I don’t say that proudly — but for her first lead role in a film in 25 years, this is short of the triumphant return that we’d like.
She certainly deserved something sturdier than this movie, which ends by waving a magic wand and solving all her psychological issues. This is a story of an elderly person coming out of her shell and re-engaging with the world, and we’ve seen enough stories like that done better that we really don’t need Hello, My Name Is Doris.
[box_info]Hello, My Name Is Doris
Starring Sally Field and Max Greenfield. Directed by Michael Showalter. Written by Michael Showalter and Laura Terruso, based on Terruso’s short film. Rated R.[/box_info]