Hello, My Name Is Doris, the new solo directorial effort from The State and Wet Hot American Summer’s Michael Showalter, seems to have been sparked by a single observation: Isn’t it funny how hip young people like to dress (and, amid the current craze for all things artisanal, make things) like their grandparents? It’s an amusing thought, and, combined with savvy office culture, social media, and good old-fashioned dysfunctional family dynamics, plenty of fodder for a biting satire of contemporary hipsterdom. But that’s not the movie Showalter is trying to make.
Sally Field, looking fabulous in cat-eye glasses and eccentric knits, stars as Doris, a sixtysomething woman who at the beginning of the film is living a lonely existence in Staten Island. Her mother, to whose care she has devoted much of her adult life, recently died, leaving her with little but her old-school leftist pal Roz (Tyne Daly) and her menial data-entry job to occupy her time. It’s the confluence of these two that inspires Doris to change things up, actually: After Roz takes her to a lecture by self-help guru Willy Williams (Peter Gallagher), Doris is motivated to pursue a relationship with her office crush, a recent L.A. transplant several decades her junior named John Fremont (Max Greenfield).
She does so first by catfishing him with the help of Roz’s 13-year-old granddaughter; then, after a bit of online detective work, she arranges to “bump into him” at a concert by his favorite electro-pop act. Doris is easily the oldest person at the show, and her neon ensemble—which she’s actually had since the ’80s—attracts the attention of the singer, who asks her to pose for his next album cover. This begins her career as a semi-ironic totem for the Williamsburg elite, who adore her for her vintage wardrobe, love of knitting, and earnestness. With the rise in status comes a budding friendship with John, with whom Doris is becoming increasingly infatuated, even after she discovers he’s been dating a willowy blonde named (appropriately enough) Brooklyn (Beth Behrs).
Buoyed by a solid supporting cast—highlights include Wendi McLendon-Covey, plucked from a meaner movie as Doris’ condescending sister-in-law, and Natasha Lyonne and Kumail Nanjiani as her millennial co-workers—Field keeps both hands firmly on the wheel as Doris, skillfully maneuvering through both the comedic and dramatic scenes like the two-time Oscar winner that she is. (She’s so good in an explosive confrontation with her brother two-thirds of the way through, actually, that it takes some effort to get back into the comedic groove afterwards.) But while it’s refreshing to see Field in a role that acknowledges that women still have sex drives after their 50th (or 60th) birthdays, at the same time the film seems to be hedging its bets by giving her character stereotypical spinster attributes like a fridge full of cat medicine, a love of romance novels, and a hoarding problem inherited from her late mother.
That hedging is where Hello, My Name Is Doris disappoints. When Behrs’ character mentions her involvement in the “LGBT knitting community,” for example, the concept is so stereotypically hipster Brooklyn that viewers may begin rubbing their hands together in spiteful glee at the savage mockery that is surely to come. But by the time we actually get to the queer craft circle, the moment has already passed. A handful of fantasy sequences where Doris imagines John sweeping her off her feet—scattered evidence of Showalter’s usual absurdist streak—deflate quickly for an effect that’s more anticlimactic than comic.
Fewer punches are pulled in the “drama” half of the “dramedy” equation. Showalter leaves the actions and motivations of his characters (Greenfield’s, in particular) open-ended, playing with viewer expectations and leading us to momentarily believe, here and there, that maybe things will work out for the May/December couple. Ultimately, though, there are few surprises in how each situation plays out. Perhaps Hello, My Name Is Doris could have been a bolder film if it had a stronger sense of its audience. But despite some compelling performances, this R-rated but genial dramedy is a lot like its protagonist: unconventional, yet playing it safe.