It is often said that there is a distinct dearth of good roles for women over a certain age, and if that is indeed the case then it seems Sally Field must have won the jackpot when she signed on to play Doris. A lonely spinster living on Staten Island, having inherited the house she once shared with her dearly departed mother, Doris has taken to hoarding household objects in an attempt to mediate her loneliness and longing. She has a friend, Roz (Tyne Daly), but spends most of her time inputting data at a fashion company that doesn’t appreciate her and speaking to a therapist at the insistence of her brother’s family who want Doris to sell the house and split the inheritance.
That is, until John Fremont (Max Greenfield) steps into the elevator one morning and compliments her glasses. This small and seemingly innocuous act of kindness changes everything, as Doris becomes almost immediately infatuated with the man and increasingly convinced that her feelings are reciprocated. No sooner has he moved his things in, having transferred from the Los Angeles office, than Doris begins fantasising about their future together. Emboldened by a self-improvement seminar hosted by Willy Williams (Peter Gallagher) and further encouraged by Roz’s granddaughter’s relationship advice, she sets about trying to catch his attention and win his heart – first by synchronising their coffee breaks at work and then by full-on Catfishing him on Facebook.
The rest you can probably work out for yourself, as she experiences the usual heartaches and heartbreaks that invariably afflict romantics of any age. That said, while the general shape of the narrative might be relatively self-evident there are still plenty of surprises along the way – and not just wrinkles and creases. Doris may always have a romance novel to hand, for example, but she’s not above a few cheap thrills at the expense of an inflatable ball and a bicycle pump.
Director Michael Showalter and co-writer Laura Terruso (upon whose short film Hello, My Name is Doris is based) have worked hard to avoid making their sixty-something protagonist a figure of fun, or to focus exclusively on her age as a source of the film’s comedy or drama. Even next to such relatively respectable films as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Last Quartet and The Intern, Showalter’s film feels refreshingly deferential. Hello, My Name is Doris is playful rather than patronising.
She evokes incredible compassion in scenes depicting her character’s compulsive behaviour and chronic loneliness, but is always prepared to undercut the drama with a punchline or pratfall. At one point she gamely mounts John at an EDM concert only to be spotted by the band and asked to pose for their next album cover, and Field somehow manages to do so with the utmost grace and dignity — while dressed in neon and using a gramophone as a prop.
For this is a film about beginning anew and not simply carrying on where one has left off; Doris is destined to discover that living is not just for the young, but for everyone who still possesses a lust for life. You need only look at Field, acting out her character’s fantasies, to see through the veil of years.