Michael Showalter, co-director of Wet Hot American Summer, is no stranger to comedy, and he is arguably one of the funniest performers/directors working today, depending on whether his absurdist sensibilities jive with your sense of humor. It’s weird, then, to see him co-write (with Laura Terruso) and direct something like Hello, My Name is Doris, ostensibly a dramedy that functions much better as a drama than a comedy. Mind you, it’s a very clever and witty drama, but it’s weird to see how it doesn’t make much of an effort to tell any jokes beside the one central to its premise.
Doris, played by a perfectly cast Sally Field, is a woman in her sixties who never left home and worked in a cubicle job to support her hoarder mother. The film opens on her mother’s funeral, which coincides with the arrival of a new, young co-worker whom Doris becomes obsessively infatuated with. His name is John (Max Greenfield), and Doris becomes determined to woo this younger man, studying up on his interests and making every attempt to overcome her shy and awkward ways in order to pursue this impossible relationship.
The running gag of the film is an observation of John’s social circles and how the hipster class doesn’t actually offer anything to society beyond their egocentricity and appropriative attitudes. Doris is absorbed into the group as a novelty, a relic of a bygone era that the idiots can fawn over for being an “original” while they make casual comments about how their bizarre projects are the new best thing ever and how visiting LGBT spaces really allows them to open up as straight people. There is some cutting observational commentary at play here, and the absurdity of it feels very reminiscent of Showalter’s time in the comedy trio Stella, yet it never feels like there’s a punchline, probably because the world of Doris is much more grounded in reality than Showalter’s usual settings.
But that groundedness is precisely why the dramatic portions of Doris work so well. Doris is a fascinating character to study, a woman whose emotional development was stunted by a need to care for her (probably) mental ill mother, and now, way past the prime of her life and in need of a new purpose, she regresses back to young adulthood, even though she’s about forty years too late to the party. Simultaneously, she’s a reflection of her mother’s self-destructive behaviors, a hoarder and obsessive who can’t let go of the past, even as she makes every attempt to move forward. Field carries this film with the strength of her performance, making Doris perhaps the most empathetic stalker to grace the screen, a pathetic figure whom we gradually start to realize is more complex than an original off-putting impression may demonstrate.
In fact, Doris’s dramatic character moments stand in such contrast to the lighter moments that this may be why the film doesn’t come across as all that funny. It’s a cute film to be sure, and as a character study it is both endearing and heartbreaking. It’s just important to keep in mind that the usual laughs that accompany Showalter’s other work are largely absent, even if the light tone of some scenes may suggest otherwise. But that’s okay, because Hello, My Name is Doris is a film that works well for what it is, despite potential expectations to the contrary.