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Hello, My Name Is Doris

D: Michael Showalter / 96m

Cast: Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Tyne Daly, Stephen Root, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Beth Behrs, Natasha Lyonne, Kumail Nanjiani, Rich Sommer, Isabella Acres, Caroline Aaron, Elizabeth Reaser, Peter Gallagher

A romantic comedy with a difference, Hello, My Name Is Doris begins with a funeral. Not necessarily the best place for a romantic comedy to start from, but it introduces us to Doris Miller (Field), a sixty-something spinster who works in the accounting department of a trendy, up-market firm. Never married and having spent a considerable amount of her life looking after her ailing mother (who has just died), Doris is adrift in her own life and the home she shared with her mother on Staten Island. But when new art director John Fremont compliments her on his first day on the job, Doris reacts like a teenager and straight away develops a crush on him. And when she attends a self-help seminar hosted by “new you” guru Willy Williams (Gallagher), Doris takes his advice and persuades herself that she can have a relationship with John that can be more than professional.

Ignoring the concerns and the advice of her best friend, Roz (Daly), Doris makes attempt after clumsy attempt to engage John in conversation at the office but she’s too nervous to make much of an impact. It’s not until she mentions her interest in John within earshot of Roz’s teenage daughter, Vivian (Acres), that Doris discovers there’s a way into John’s world that might make all the difference. With John having a Facebook page, Vivian sets up Doris with a fake account and gets John to accept her as a friend. His site reveals various interests, one of which is a band called Baby Goya and the Nuclear Winters. They prove to be an electronic band – not Doris’s cup of tea – but when John finds out she’s a “fan”, and she then learns they’re playing a gig nearby, the stage is set for a “chance” meeting that sees the pair begin to get to know each other… and eventually become friends.

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But John has a girlfriend, Brooklyn (Behrs), and Doris has to find a way of dealing with this development, as well as the increasing concerns of Roz, and the fact that her friendship with John is based on deception. Doris ends up doing something petty and malicious that provides her with an opportunity to tell John how she feels about him. But while Doris is (mostly) having the time of her life, her brother Todd (Root) and his wife Cynthia (McLendon-Covey) are pressuring her to sell her home. They also insist she see a therapist dealing in hoarding issues, as the house is a mess of unneeded junk. Trying to balance these things with her newfound enthusiasm for John and the potential for romance with him, Doris has to try and keep a clear head in the run-up to telling him how she feels about him. But will he feel the same way…?

Hands up anyone who remembers the last time Sally Field had the lead role in a movie… Anyone? Well, if you came up with Two Weeks (2006) then give yourself a big pat on the back. Nine (now ten) years on, and Field is finally back on our screens in a role that not only reflects her age – she’ll be seventy in November – but which also serves as a reminder of just how good an actress she is. Forget the movie’s raison d’etre – which some viewers may find uncomfortable or just plain excruciating – this is a chance to see Field playing both drama and comedy with equal skill and navigating her way through the choppy waters of Laura Terruso and Michael Showalter’s broadly effective screenplay, itself based on Terruso’s short, Doris & the Intern (2011).

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What could well have proven to be a cringeworthy tale of an old(er) woman lusting after a younger man is headed off at the pass by Field’s perfectly judged, and empowering performance. As the socially removed (and then newly improved) Doris, Field shows the character’s vulnerability and desperate need for acceptance – not just by John but by his peers as well – at all times, reminding the viewer that there’s a lot more to Doris than predatory instincts and a late-blooming libido. That the script is sympathetic towards Doris is a given, but it’s Field’s instinctive and assiduous portrayal that stops that sympathy from becoming too cloying or saccharine. While the first half of the movie is content to wring out some offbeat and occasionally embarrassing comedy, the second half gives way to the necessary drama the movie needs to wrap things up. Field’s performance is the glue that holds the movie together, and it’s a pleasure to see her in a role that allows her to show off her range.

Again, the notion of a May-December relationship where the woman is way past the cougar stage may well put off some viewers, but a couple of dream sequences aside, this is a splendidly old-fashioned movie that doesn’t seek to offend anyone, and carries enough modern-day smarts to keep viewers hooked. There’s a smattering of jokes that are very funny thanks to their popping up out of nowhere – at a backstage party, Doris talks to a woman who tells her she’s “a teacher at a gay pre-school” – and Doris’s outfits are a mad jumble of colours and designs that make you wonder if she’s colour blind or has reached a point in her life where she just doesn’t care anymore (either could be true but the movie doesn’t reveal the reason for her sartorial mash-ups). And when things get serious, Field ensures that the poignancy and heartache surrounding Doris aren’t downplayed by the script’s need to be realistic about her relationship with John.

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With Field being on top form, it’s hard for the rest of the cast to look as good, and only Daly manages to stand out from the crowd. Otherwise, there are too many minor roles jostling for attention, and Max Greenfield’s John is too vanilla to make much of an impact (a problem that lies with the script rather than Greenfield’s portrayal). The likes of Lyonne, Reaser and Gallagher appear here and there when needed, while Root and McLendon-Covey play good cop/bad cop as Doris’s brother and sister-in-law, but the movie can’t decide if their characters work better as dramatic foils or comic relief. One area where the movie lacks insight is in its hoarding subplot, with Doris agreeing to see a therapist too readily, and subsequent attempts to show her dealing with this issue feeling shallow and poorly thought out (the therapist is shown to have no interest in Doris’s newfound happiness as John’s friend).

Showalter is a competent director and he has an economy of style that fits well with the material. This isn’t a flashy, unappealing movie – not by a long shot – and this approach suits the material, but it does lead on occasion to a few bland stretches where it appears the script is ticking over until the next big laugh or dramatic scene arrives. Thankfully there’s a terrific soundtrack to occupy the viewer during these stretches, and Brian H. Kim’s score adds immeasurably to the emotional atmosphere of several key scenes.

Rating: 7/10 – worth seeing just for Field’s exemplary performance, Hello, My Name Is Doris is nevertheless well worth seeking out, even if it does feel a little lightweight at times; a touching, undemanding movie for the most part, but one that can raise a smile a lot of the time, and do so without undermining the inherent drama.