Michael Showalter’s Hello, My Name Is Doris takes a premise — the love of a somewhat frumpy 60-something woman for a 30-something hipster co-worker — that could have been a recipe for disaster, flirts with that disaster at every turn, and makes it work. What could have been 90 minutes of cringe-inducing comedy and debatable drama is instead a work of wit, delicacy and warm humanity. It would be easy to place the accolades for why it works on Sally Field’s nuanced creation of the lovestruck Doris Miller. (This is exacerbated by the fact that it’s so startling to be reminded of how good she can be, and that there’s more to her than occasional supporting roles and doing awkward introductions to movies with Robert Osborne on TCM.) But the reasons this odd little movie works go far beyond a single performance, no matter how good.
It isn’t just Field who is good. The entire cast is close to perfect, especially Max Greenfield as the object of her affection and Tyne Daly as her best friend. Greenfield has perhaps the most difficult role, but manages to be at once likable and somewhat thoughtless, while possessing the casual, unconscious cruelty of youth. Daly’s role is also tricky, since it requires her to be encouraging, supportive, concerned, jealous and protective over the course of the film. But, really, everyone is good — and they benefit to no end from Showalter and Laura Terruso’s screenplay and Showalter’s precise, but not showy, direction.
Field plays Doris Miller, a woman “of a certain age,” whose mother — to whom she devoted most of her life — has just died. She faces a future of being a kind-of crazy cat lady (although she only has one) living in her cluttered Staten Island house, with bizarre rationales for saving things like empty shampoo bottles. But Doris does have a job in Manhattan. She is, in fact, the oldest employee there — in both senses of the term. It’s there that she meets new employee John Fremont (Greenfield). Were Doris not at least twice his age, they’d even have a “meet cute” — but here it’s more of a “meet awkward.” It is still enough to leave her totally besotted.
What starts out as foolishly tentative flirting takes a new direction when Doris’ friend Roz (Daly) takes her to a self-help seminar. The primary attraction for Roz is the free cheese, but Doris buys into the spiel and becomes dedicated to making a serious bid for John’s affection. At first, Roz is all for this. When Doris starts taking romance advice from Roz’s 13-year-old granddaughter (Isabella Acres) and creates a fictitious Facebook account in order to find out what John’s interests are, she’s less sure this is a good idea. And perhaps it isn’t, as Doris makes a valiant attempt to share in his interests and get to know John better. This actually works — in its way, for a time — but pitfalls are everywhere, and we know that this is unlikely to end well.
That’s as much as I’ll say about the plot — in part because the plot is secondary to the carefully and slowly revealed character of Doris, and, to some extent, John. Doris’ layers peel away as we watch and she more and more feels tragically lovable, not a figure of fun as a foolish old woman. Part of the reason for this is that John kind of leads her on — with or without meaning to. (And I’m not sure he knows; the film clearly doesn’t). It’s so easy to see how Doris misreads things — if, indeed, she is entirely misreading them. That’s something the film handles with grace and elegance — stopping at just the right moment and preserving the dignities of the characters.
I am not calling Hello, My Name Is Doris a perfect film. The tendency (established early on) to cut to Doris’ various fantasies about the way John responds to her can be a little too much, though I’m willing to concede their function — especially since they highlight the actual romance of the two characters. (And, make no mistake, it is something of a romance, however untraditional.) The earlier scenes also tend to make Doris more awkward than necessary, but these are minor things. This is a sweet, sincere, deeply human film that ought to be seen by the broadest possible audience. Rated R for language.