Watching Sally Field is one of the pleasures of going to the movies. From Norma Rae to Lincoln, Field has always used the camera lens to make direct communication with a character and an audience. Hello, My Name is Doris doesn’t often give her the material she deserves. But even when the film fails her, Field never loses her focus.
The role of Doris Miller, a sixtysomething hoarder who lives on Staten Island and dresses like an explosion at a vintage discount store, is more a compendium of quirks than a character. It’s Field who turns her into a human being to whom attention must be paid. As the film begins, Doris has just lost the mother she’s spent her adult life caring for. Her brother Todd (the excellent Stephen Root) and his selfish wife, Cynthia (Wendi McLendon-Covey), went on with their own lives. Now Doris is adrift. A motivational speaker, expertly smarmified by Peter Gallagher, tells her to take risks. But where’s the opportunity? Not at her Manhattan fashion office where she toils in a cubicle as a data-entry drone while her co-workers nod politely and look right through her. All except John Fremont (Max Greenfield), a 30-ish art director just in from California. He triggers something in Doris that years of reading romance novels has kept under wraps.
And here’s the point where the movie must decide where it’s heading. Director Michael Showalter (The Baxter), who cowrote the script with Laura Terruso as an adaptation of Terruso’s short film Doris & the Intern, can’t make up his mind. Will we see Doris blossom from her nonsexual friendship of a nice younger guy? Or will an oddball Harold and Maude relationship develop? Or will the film descend into Fatal Attraction stalker territory? Showalter seems to try on every genre for size. It’s hell on the movie.
At first, it all seems innocent enough as the teen granddaughter (Isabella Acres) of Doris’ best friend (a fine, feisty Tyne Daly) instructs Doris on how to track John’s activities through social media. She fakes an interest in an EDM band he likes on Facebook and that sets up a chance meeting at the club where the musicians are playing. Greenfield, of TV’s New Girl, is an appealing actor, but the script allows him to seem clueless about the crush that Doris has on him and what might have made her break up his affair with a younger woman (Beth Behrs). The film didn’t need the fantasy scenes of Doris macking on a shirtless John. All it really needs is Field. And when she’s allowed to hold the screen without gimmicks and detours into curdled whimsy, Hello, My Name is Doris is a movie well met.