There are two main reasons to seek out Michael Showalter’s Hello, My Name is Doris: Sally Field and Max Greenfield, who share a warm and genuinely affectionate chemistry with one another as Showalter’s unexpected will they/won’t they romantic leads. The third reason to see the film is Showalter himself, who brings a surprisingly earnest directorial sensibility to what could easily amount to nothing more than winking, nudging snark. A comedy in which a woman in her sixties falls for a man half her age does read like a recipe for unflattering ageist bullshit, after all, particularly when the culture allows only for older men to court younger women and not the way around.
In deference to truth, Hello, My Name is Doris toes both the “winking, nudging snark” line and the “unflattering ageist bullshit” line more often than not, but hey: at least Showalter cares about palpable tenderness when the film is just about Field and Greenfield. In the many scenes they share together, the film becomes something more than precious indie quirk fare; it becomes a real love story, one that’s fraught by generational gaps and divides and social taboos. It’s sweet, really, seeing Field’s Doris and Greenfield’s John walk around the edges of attraction, though the attraction is ultimately hers more than it is his.
Doris does data entry for a Brooklyn-based clothing outlet that specializes in hipster garments. John is the company’s new art director, who, like Showalter, is an unabashed nice boy with kind eyes. After their first encounter, spent literally bumping into each other in an elevator, Doris – who lives alone in the house she used to share with her recently deceased mother – immediately develops the hots for him, and so she channels her time and energy into figuring out how to get him to notice her and like her.
That’s pretty much the whole movie. Those well-educated in the art of the rom-com can plot the film’s course within its opening ten minutes, though Hello, My Name is Doris rewards anyone with a background in cringe comedy, too: Doris is awkward, shy, too shut-in for her own good, a low-level hoarder who reads trashy romance novels and must rely on the intervention of her friend’s teenage granddaughter to navigate that gosh darned Internet thingamajig. She’s also aiming way outside of her league, or so the film reminds us at every available opportunity. It’s a small mercy that attention is paid to the difference in years between her and John only a mere handful of times. More emphasis is placed on her straight-up eccentricity than on her maturity.
But that doesn’t stop the film from being just a touch patronizing, both to Doris and to Brooklyn hipsters. Not that hipsters need defending – they are often indefensible – but Hello, My Name is Doris doesn’t stop at skewering shallow hipsterdom: Showalter takes that horse out back and bludgeons it to death with a mason jar. As Doris and John develop a friendship, she becomes more and more accepted by his hipster friends, who all look and act like rejected Girls cast members, solely on the basis that she’s just plain old out there. To a point, this is a sweet nod to non-judgmental millennial sensibilities, but the joke, such as it is, runs out of steam fast and winds up putting the film in the same sort of “woman must change herself to find acceptance” hole that so many others of its kind often do. (This is all to say nothing of the film’s over-stated and condescending message to seniors everywhere that they, like everyone else, have value and deserve happiness. The message is correct, but Showalter doesn’t do enough to undercut the snootiness with which it is delivered.)
Any view with an aversion to “old people say the darnedest things!” routines will probably react to Hello, My Name is Doris like so much ipecac; it is quite frankly the ultimate “old people say the darnedest things!” film, putting recent fare like Nebraska to shame. And yet Field and Greenfield are so good, together and apart, that the movie is nearly worth it for them alone. The film is often funny, of course – how could it not be? – even when it is funny at the expense of Doris’ dignity, which feels like a keyword here. A side plot sees Doris struggling with emotional and psychological issues as she endures her brother (Stephen Root) and his wife’s (Wendi McLendon-Covey) attempts at getting her out of her family home; this eventually resolves with a sequence of cleansing as Doris, her friends, and her therapist (Elizabeth Reaser) organize the place and dispel it of junk. Showalter’s camera glides on rails from one room to the next, depicting moments of tidying, scouring, and spiritual healing all at the same time.
It’s a beautiful moment, one that highlights the best of what Showalter is capable of as a filmmaker; he is a kind soul who feels more at ease when he’s treating the characters in his movies like actual human beings instead of punchline pincushions. One can’t help but wonder how much better it could have been had he accorded just a little more compassion to everyone else in his cast.