*** out of ****
for strong language
Released: March 11, 2016 limited; March 25 wider
Runtime: 95 minutes
Director: Michael Showalter
Starring: Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Tyne Daily, Isabella Acres, Stephen Root, Kumail Nanjiani, Natasha, Lyonne, Rich Sommer, Peter Gallagher
It requires a special kind of actor to take a very sad character and make it truly endearing while staying true to the nature of that character. I emphasize that last part because, too often, actors and movies pull their punches by offering safe, sanitized versions of someone on the social margins.
Writer/Director Michael Showalter (The Baxter) doesn’t take an idealized view of his eccentric title character in Hello, My Name Is Doris, nor does he allow her graces that the real world wouldn’t (even when it looks like he might). Instead, he gives dimension, humor, and humanity to Doris by a simple (and very fortunate) casting stroke: Sally Field.
Indeed, this is nothing short of a showcase for Field, as it allows her to sink her teeth into an idiosyncratic role in ways she hasn’t been afforded in years (maybe decades). Yes, it’s a good role, and well-written, but the script – by its nature and limits – compels the actress to soften Doris’s anti-social edges, and elevate her to something that’s richer, and more nuanced, than what’s on the page. Field does exactly that, reminding us not only why she’s won two Academy Awards, but also why we really, really like her.
Doris, who’s always been shy and socially awkward, is a bit of a relic where she works: an aging accountant in a New York media firm being taken over by Millennials. Never married and no kids, she’s lived with and cared for her mother who, as the film opens, has finally passed. Doris’s new independence, however, only emphasizes her aging spinsterhood.
Enter the new Art Director at work, John (Max Greenfield, TV’s New Girl), fresh from the west coast. He’s dashing, kind, imminently likeable…and young enough to be Doris’s son. But the heart wants what the heart wants, and Doris crushes hard for John at first sight. Her far-fetched fantasies (playing out in Ally McBeal style daydreams) are given fuel – even possibility – when a self-help guru inspires Doris to believe that anything she desires is all within her power to actualize. Who’s to argue? He wrote, after all, the best seller “I’m Possible”. (See what he did there? If not, don’t worry – he’ll explain it to you.)
Before you know it, Doris is taking initial baby steps to get John’s attention, then discovering a boldness to go further with each additional step (egged on by a friend’s daughter, who teaches Doris to Facebook-stalk). Yes, it’s a little creepy, but there’s also a giddy joy in the power of falling in love, in the courage that it creates. And it sends Doris (and us) on an emotionally palpable roller coaster.
Yet while there’s a lot of humor within this conceit, even whimsy, Showalter doesn’t reduce the arc to its most quixotically cute baseline. In fact, no matter what victories Doris gains (or imagines), we never lose sight of the sad desperation that this ultimately is. But it’s to both Field’s and Showalter’s credit that an empathy remains in our hearts for Doris. Adding to that is Doris’s confrontation with her own self-conscious neurosis (embodied by her pack-rat hoarding dysfunction), and her need to “clean house” both literally and figuratively.
This is a movie that’s rooting for its quirky heroine, not caustically embarrassing her for squirmy discomfort, even as an honest appraisal of her chances always looms. It’s this tension – between wanting Doris to succeed, and knowing the likelihood – that keeps us emotionally invested, especially as we learn more of Doris’s own personal history, the regrets that burden her, and that it’s too late to fix them.
What emerges, though – even in the face of unrequited hopes – is something quaintly but profoundly beautiful: the unexpected empowerment of falling in love, at any age, with any person, and against all logic. How it’s returned, if at all, is ultimately beside the point. It’s what that love does to you, and the courage it gives you, that matters most. This strange little fable of Doris Miller shows us that Empowerment is not defined by getting what our heart desires; it’s in taking the risk to follow your heart in the first place.