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Hello, My Name is Doris

Wow, the multiplexes are a sad sight right now. Of course, I completely understand why studios would be shy about releasing anything the weekend before Batman v. Superman, but it’s still kind of embarrassing to watch the wheels fly right off the Divergent franchise. This in addition to The Brothers Grimsby, The Perfect Match, Miracles from Heaven, London Has Fallen, and so many other bombs that anyone could’ve seen coming a mile away.

So instead of those, let’s go to the arthouses for something a little different.

Hello, My Name is Doris is a light little dramedy showcase for Sally Field, here playing the eponymous Doris Miller. To put it blunty, Doris is a trainwreck. She’s a kleptomaniac and an obsessive hoarder. She wears glasses on top of her glasses. (Protip from an optometrists’ son: Never do this.) She’s been working the same bottom-tier data entry job for decades. She’s so withdrawn, awkward, and socially ignorant that she may as well be a complete shut-in. She reads trashy romance novels to an unhealthy degree.

To be entirely fair, we meet Doris just after her mother’s death. This after she spent a lifetime caring for her mother, passing up every opportunity for education, romance, career advancement, etc. in the process. I very strongly doubt that this was the only reason why Doris has completely lost her mind, but I doubt it helped.

Anyway, the story kicks off with the introduction of John (Max Greenfield), who’s just transferred over to Doris’ workplace. He’s also a gorgeous young twenty-something that Doris immediately falls in love with. At the encouragement of a slimy inspirational speaker (pardon the redundancy) played by Peter Gallagher, Doris decides that she’s going to just go for it and try to coax John into this May-December romance.

Doris is assisted in this by Vivian (Isabella Acres), the teenaged granddaughter of Doris’ best friend since childhood (Roz, played by Tyne Daly). It’s Vivian who introduces Doris to the wonders of Facebook and shows her how to stalk John on social media. From there, Doris learns about yoga, electronic music, and other such pastimes of hip liberal 21st century youth. Surprisingly, John takes the bait and starts to ingratiate Doris with his own circle of friends.

Now, John’s friends are the kind of super-inclusive liberal types who regularly meet for LGBT knitting circles (verbatim from the film, I swear to God), and don’t normally clash well with older conservative folk. But the difference here is that Doris isn’t the least bit political or judgmental. She’s just looking for friendship, acceptance, and personal growth, as they are. What’s more, she’s in the middle of a highly experimental process in trying to figure out precisely who she is, just as these millennials are. So really, they get along surprisingly well.

But here’s the thing: this mutual attraction between Doris and today’s youth is strictly superficial. Unlike those for whom this is a serious lifestyle, Doris doesn’t seem to have a clue what she’s doing or why she’s doing it. She only knows that it feels right in the moment, so of course we know that she’s in for something awful when the bottom finally drops out. Especially since we know damn well that underneath her adorably hip facade, she’s a great big bundle of insanity held together with paper clips and hope. Doris doesn’t know what she’s doing, and nobody else around her has any idea what they’re dealing with.

It’s interesting to note that while millennial uber-liberal culture is parodied extensively, it’s never done in such a way as to make the parody the joke. Instead, Doris’ response to the parody is the joke. This naturally leads to an abundance of awkward fish-out-of-water comedy, in addition to several very crude jokes (one particular scene with a bicycle pump comes to mind). Oh, and let’s not forget all the daydream sequences in which Doris imagines herself in hackneyed Harlequin romance scenes with John. It all comes within a hair’s breadth of annoying and unfunny, but Sally Field commits herself to such an unhealthy degree that the exaggeration works and the comedy gets a few laughs.

Sally Field is easily the standout of the cast, knocking every single scene clear out of the park, getting tears and laughs in equal measure like the undisputed pro she is. Major kudos are also due to Tyne Daly, here playing a “best friend” role who does not mince words when dispensing harsh truths, but she always does it in such a way that it clearly comes with the best intentions. Daly brings so much heart and humor to what could easily have been a thankless paper-thin role, ditto for Stephen Root as Doris’ brother.

I was also very fond of Isabella Acres, who somehow plays the nosy teenager in a way that didn’t make me want to strangle her. Likewise, Beth Behrs plays a romantic rival for Doris, but in a twist, Behrs is so friendly and sweet that it’s impossible not to like her. Then again, considering that she’s competing for John’s affections with Doris, who would you rather root for?

Alas, not everyone in the supporting cast comes out so well. Wendi McLendon-Covey plays such a stone-cold bitch that I can’t begin to guess why anyone puts up with her. Elizabeth Reaser plays a surprisingly vital character, but she completely fails to leave an impression. Every single one of Doris’ coworkers is a cardboard cutout who fails to get a laugh.

As for John himself… yikes. Max Greenfield brings nothing to the role except a pretty face, and also the commitment to make a complete ass of himself in the aforementioned Harlequin romance daydreams. Otherwise, he completely fails to sell himself as a plausible love interest for our lead character, and he has virtually nothing in the way of screen presence or charisma. Granted, it’s entirely possible that this was intentional, like Doris is only in love with the idea of John and her attraction is entirely superficial. But while the film kinda hints at that notion, it’s not quite firm enough to convince me that this angle was intentional.

Sadly, the whole film is kinda wishy-washy on the subject of an overall theme. There’s the one development track in which Doris learns to go outside her comfort zone and try something new, and there’s the development track in which Doris learns to let go of old baggage and cut loose everything that’s holding her back, but the film could have and should have done so much more to connect the two threads and show how one led to the other. What’s more, I kept waiting for the film to point out how much Doris has changed for the better in pursuing John, to the point where it doesn’t even matter if the two of them end up together, but that crucial point goes completely unsaid and unexplored.

This movie could easily have left the audience with a coherent and poignant take-home message about aging, identity, and so on, but the filmmakers stop just short of doing so. It’s infuriating, though Doris’ development is still satisfying to watch. But again, that’s pretty much entirely due to Sally Field.

Hello, My Name is Doris is all about the lead performance. A handful of decent supporting roles aside, Sally Field is the only reason to go see this movie. Absolutely everything in this picture is about this sad, mentally unstable main character and her adorably awkward attempts at blending in with the cool kids. Even in terms of editing, there are occasional scenes in which quick-cuts are effectively used to put us in the character’s cluttered headspace. Alas, while the film is cute enough and competent enough, the ending fails to tie everything together in such a way that it congeals into something truly great.

If this movie didn’t have Sally Field, it wouldn’t have had anything. If that’s enough to pique your interest, go ahead and give it a watch. Otherwise, you can safely take a pass.

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