Rating in Stars: *** (out of ****)
Cast: Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Stephen Root, Tyne Daly
Director: Michael Showalter
MPAA Rating: R (for language)
Running Time: 1:35
Release Date: 03/11/16 (limited)
The older woman latches on to the younger man because she feels the spark of her youth decades removed from it. The truth is that she didn’t really seem to have a period of youth. Her mother, who has just recently died, required care from early on in the daughter’s independent life. She even refused the chance to move with her husband to a city that would take her away from mom, even if it was her first chance at real love. This was, it is clear, a conscientious decision on her part, but it seems that years of being with her mother have rubbed off on her. She is socially awkward, hoards everything that “might” come in handy in the future, and, for lack of a better term, stalks the young man she meets on the elevator at their place of work to discover common interests.
The truth at an even deeper level is that Doris Miller is a lonely woman getting up in years without the slightest clue of what she’s done with her life until this point. This is the central motivation for every, tiny thing, even a particularly unsavory decision made while drunk on wine, that we see her doing in Hello, My Name Is Doris. Screenwriters Michael Showalter (who is also the director) and Laura Terruso (working from her short film “Doris & the Intern,” unseen by me) understand the woman, sometimes to a fault. Sally Field, who plays Doris, sympathizes with her and shows a compassion with such depth that the fault does not exist for the actress. It’s a strong performance that takes the quirk at the center of Doris Miller and makes it a character trait.
The catalyst for her shift is John (Max Greenfield), a handsome co-worker in his twenties, who reciprocates her awkward, shy demeanor with cordiality and, at times, bemusement. Doris’ best friend Roz’ (Tyne Daly) granddaughter Vivian (Isabella Acres) sets her up on a social networking website, through which Doris is able to learn all of the particulars of John’s personal life, from his music taste (an electronic pop group central among them, whom Doris surprises herself by rather enjoying) to the definition of the slang word “baller” when he uses it to describe her. Meanwhile, a social worker (Elizabeth Reaser) hired by her brother (Stephen Root) and sister-in-law (Wendi McLendon-Covey) wants to talk about that hoarding habit.
Both of these subplots play generally as expected. Doris discovers that John is not exactly looking for such a senior partner in life when he starts dating Brooklyn (Beth Behrs), a chatty, blonde aspiring singer whose first job entertaining an actual crowd Doris attends (It’s amusing the way Field navigates several emotions in this scene in particular, from trying to convey disgust through fake smiling to turning a sweet smile into a death glare when Brooklyn’s lyrics turn lovey-dovey). That drunken act, a transgression through the website that has certainly been committed by many in real life, puts a real damper on things between herself and John.
Somehow more crucial, though, is her resentment of a brother who left her in her time of need; he, meanwhile, must remind her of her conscious sacrifice (The subsequent unconscious realization that occurs late into the third act is particularly touching), and Root, one of our great current character actors, is as solid a presence as ever. Daly is also quite good as a lifelong friend who eventually feels abandoned (A mealtime prayer is pitch-perfect in both its uncomfortable humor and bitterness). The real story, though, remains Field, who takes a potentially impossible-to-warm-up-to woman and makes her impossible to dislike. Hello, My Name Is Doris is the affecting study of the age gap that it is because of its central actress.