Four stars. Rated R, for profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.1.16
Sally Field remains cute as a bug: as personable and effervescent as she was back in 1965, when she debuted as television’s Gidget.
The difference, all these years later, is that she also has matured into a deceptively powerful actress. Too many people take the bubbly exterior for granted — the signature cheerfulness — and then act surprised when Field unleashes impressive layers of pathos or expressive intensity.
We shouldn’t be surprised; her dramatic chops have been well established ever since Norma Rae and Places in the Heart, and subsequently well exercised in Steel Magnolias, a well-remembered guest appearance on TV’s E.R., and 2013’s Oscar-nominated supporting role in Lincoln.
Given the right material, Field can be a force of nature ... and Hello, My Name Is Doris definitely is the right material.
Director Michael Showalter’s bittersweet dramedy has been expanded from Doris and the Intern, an 8-minute short by then film student Laura Terruso, who shared her work with Showalter while he was teaching at her alma mater, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Obviously impressed, he and Terruso began a scripting collaboration that has resulted in this feature film: a clever and sensitive expansion of what began as little more than a droll comedy.
(Terruso’s short is readily available for online viewing: an opportunity I strongly encourage ... but only after you’ve seen this feature.)
We meet Doris Miller (Field), a “woman of a certain age,” during her all-time worst personal crisis. Her mother has just died, after having been “monitored” full-time by Doris, who put her own life on hold in the process. We get hints that Mom was something of a shut-in with a “clutter habit,” both traits having been absorbed, more or less, by Doris.
With Mom barely in the grave, Doris’ insensitive brother Todd (Stephen Root) and his mean-spirited wife Cynthia (Wendi McLendon-Covey, the pluperfect shrew) are anxious for Doris to sell the Staten Island house in which she was raised, and has spent all that effort as a full-time caregiver. Todd and Cynthia wish to reap the financial windfall.
Doris panics at the thought: What Cynthia dismisses as the home’s mountains of junk, Doris regards as a “museum” of accumulated memories shared with her late mother. As with most hoarders, Doris simply refuses to acknowledge any sort of problem.
More to the point, she’s suddenly adrift — answerable to nobody but herself — and utterly baffled by how to put that first self-indulgent foot forward.
Doris has a few friends, notably best gal-pal Roz (Tyne Daly), and they often attend museum and bookstore lectures (in part because Roz wants access to the free food). One such outing features motivational speaker Willy Williams, played to hilariously insincere perfection by Peter Gallagher, whose vacuous platitudes unexpectedly inspire Doris to become a better version of herself.
Everything is a matter of perspective, Williams insists. The word “impossible” also can be viewed as “I’m possible.” (Haven’t heard that one before, and if it’s original with Showalter and Terruso, it’s a smile.)
That’s all the encouragement Doris needs to pursue her new impossible dream, in the form of John Fremont (Max Greenfield), the dynamic new art director at the company where she has worked since the dawn of time. We get a sense that it was some sort of mail-order catalog firm, back in the day, and now has morphed into a glossy online endeavor staffed almost entirely by young New York hipsters.
Doris, a legacy employee, has managed to keep up with low-level data entry; otherwise, she’s mostly ignored by everybody, dismissed as a vaguely amusing relic, or perhaps an aging cat lady.
Showalter and Terruso have great fun with this place’s snarky atmosphere, and particularly the pretentious staff supervisor (Rebecca Wisocky). Minor roles throughout the film are filled by talented indie actors and actresses — some, like Natasha Lyonne, immediately recognized — all of whom deftly sketch their characters via body language and deliciously condescending dialog. (Millennials, bless their self-absorbed hearts, are easy to make fun of; Showalter and Terruso do it quite well.)
The problem: Doris has misconstrued John’s polite kindness, magnifying it into full-blown erotic fantasies straight out of her bodice-ripping romance novels. Worse yet, she seeks and accepts courtship advice from Roz’s 13-year-old granddaughter, Vivian (Isabella Acres, quite adorable), who eagerly sets up a bogus social media profile so that Doris can eavesdrop on John.
Cue the world’s most embarrassingly amusing, and one-sided, courtship ritual.
What follows is orchestrated for maximum cringe potential, as Showalter and Terruso set up scenarios almost certain to humiliate poor Doris. But she remains game in the face of likely mortification, and that’s the beauty of Field’s richly nuanced performance. Doris’ timing, choices and motivations may be all wrong, but she’s no less determined.
We easily understand, from Field’s body language, that this romantic pursuit is way outside Doris’ comfort zone, which makes her cautious resolve that much more heroic. Most crucially, Field makes sure that we never view Doris as a burlesque, or a foolish object of derision; this is a persuasively real person — sadly eccentric and out of touch, to be sure — who stimulates the same protective instinct that we’d feel for a sweet longtime neighbor fallen on hard emotional times.
Doris’ invigorated, take-charge attitude lulls us into such a sense of false security, in fact, that we overlook the fact that such seeming confidence is built on the shakiest of emotional foundations. Reality hits during another encounter with Todd and Cynthia, at which point Field unleashes a scene of panic-laden crisis that’s quite literally breathtaking: a bravura moment that showcases some of the strongest acting of her career.
By which time, of course, we’ve fully accepted the reality of Doris Miller, as opposed to the acting artifice of Sally Field merely playing a role.
Greenfield, a busy character actor well recognized for his long-running current gig on TV’s New Girl, is just right as John. This personable fellow is a delicate balancing act to begin with: John’s instinctive compassion can’t become so overwhelming, in the face of Doris’ unexpected behavior, that he becomes a clueless caricature.
Greenfield pulls it off, putting his quirky smile and occasionally puzzled double-takes to excellent use. John is just perceptive enough, while displaying a good-natured, get-along exterior, to remain credible. If some of his responses to Doris’ clumsy overtures seem too accommodating, it’s only because a guy of John’s age never, ever would be inclined to imagine, let alone assume, such ulterior motives from somebody such as she.
Elizabeth Reaser is nicely understated as the psychologist hired by Todd to help “fix” Doris: one of the most compassionate portrayals of a therapist I’ve seen in a mainstream film. Daly is a hoot as Roz — a communist, and obviously proud of it — and Caroline Aaron is equally amusing as Val, a frequent co-conspirator in the Doris/Roz dynamic.
Much as we’re wholly captivated by this droll and painfully poignant narrative, the script is not without issues. A sidebar concerning Doris’ exposure to John’s favorite band — an electronica/hip-hop outfit dubbed Baby Goya and the Nuclear Winters — wanders off into clumsy territory involving an album cover photo shoot, the after-effects of which are just abandoned. (This despite the fact that we really, really need to know what happens next.)
In all important respects, though, this is a thoroughly charming character study: sensitively written and directed, and fueled by Field’s bravura performance. Little films like Hello, My Name Is Doris rarely get remembered when Academy Award nominations come around, and boy, it’ll be a true shame if Field gets overlooked.