If the younger Edith Beale in “Grey Gardens” — the insular middle-aged socialite still living at home with her mother — ventured beyond her insular world and pursued romance with a younger man, she might resemble the adorable, melancholic figure played by Sally Field in “Hello, My Name is Doris.” Directed by “Wet Hot American Summer” co-writer Michael Showalter, who wrote the script with Laura Terruso, the movie follows the titular 60-year-old Staten Island residen in the wake of her mother’s dead as she explores an unlikely courtship with much younger co-worker John (Max Greenfield, “New Girl”). The ensuing bittersweet tale touches on the themes of loneliness and aging that might seem at home in Alexander Payne’s universe, and while Showalter’s broad comedy approach never burrows that deep, Field’s performance is a different story.
A world away from her dreary turn as a tortured First Lady in “Lincoln,” Field delivers a highly convincing performance as wide-eyed introvert Doris, who abruptly falls for John after being crammed into an elevator with him, and launches into a series of outrageous fantasies. This leads to several amusing space-out sessions in which Doris imagines handsome John stripping down and throwing himself her way. The reality is more complicated: Spending most of her off-hours with her lively contemporary (Tyne Daly), Doris winds up taking the advice of her friend’s 13-year-old granddaughter and stalks John on the internet, inventing an online persona to learn more about his tastes.
Before long, she’s pretending to enjoy his favorite rock band and stalking him around town, a feat that culminates with a seemingly innocuous encounter at a local show. While the affable John seems charmed by the older Doris’ apparent eagerness for the scene, Doris takes his enthusiasm as a sign of mutual attraction — a misperception that registers as both endearing and subtly tragic, given the extent to which Doris fails to understand the bigger picture. While not every gag about Doris’ attempt to come across as hip lands well, her overall strategy hits a lovable note.
As Doris continues to contemplate her prospects with John, her relatives and friends grow increasingly worried about her mental stability. Showalter tracks these developments with fairly straightforward exposition. However, Field imbues the character with a remarkable degree of pathos and crowdpleasing energy, at one point jumping about her home in an awkward shot at practicing her dance moves, then later telling off her friend for discouraging her adventurous spirit. Field’s wrinkled features and petite build enhance the dissonance between Doris’ aspirations and the larger problems that she faces. Coping with hoarding tendencies while shrugging off her relatives’ desire to help her out, she’s a troubled person whose commitment to taking charge of her life is a consistently delightful proposition.
At the same time, “Hello, My Name is Doris” doesn’t stray from acknowleding Doris’ problems, particularly once her more stable brother (Stephen Root) tries to take charge of her cluttered living situation. When Doris’ ensuing outburst injects a deeply sad monologue into the movie’s otherwise routine comedic atmosphere, it’s as though Field has singlehandedly pierced through the limitations of the material.
That ability can only do so much for a movie weighed down by several recognizable faces in bit parts (Kumail Nanjiani, Natasha Lyonne) and a somewhat basic trajectory, but Showalter capably guides the movie to an inevitably heartfelt conclusion with the underlying emotional weight of the material intact. Working away in her cubicle with a data entry job she’s held for decades, Doris is initially trapped by her ordinary surroundings — which makes it touching to watch her advance toward escaping them. More than anything else, “Hello, My Name is Doris” effectively conveys the cruel ambivalence of an ageist society, and despite its formulaic ingredients, the movie responds to that setback with Field’s exuberant, virtuoso turn providing the ultimate critical response.
“Hello, My Name is Doris” premiered this weekend at the SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.