The order of premieres for two of the comedy headliners at the South by Southwest Film Festival this year was fitting: First came Sally Field’s Hello, My Name is Doris; the next day, Melissa McCarthy’s Spy.
Field, with a career spanning five decades, has indeed blazed enough trails to help new generations of leading ladies such as McCarthy take over the big screen. But given Field’s predilection for drama and the more recent, post-Bridesmaids surge of women headlining comedies, Field has as much reason to thank McCarthy and company as the other way around.
Field and her generation, from Glenn Close to Meryl Streep to Susan Sarandon, helped lead the charge of smart, complicated female characters carrying dramas outside of typical beauty and behavior standards of Hollywood’s past. Now, McCarthy and her generation, from Tina Fey to Amy Poehler to Kristen Wiig, are heading the wave of female comedy to prove women can be just as funny and messy and raunchy as men. The latter has benefitted from the former, and vice versa.
Doris is by no means raunchy, but in it Field is almost unrecognizable as she forgoes the strong, assertive, in-control characters she’s known for and embraces messiness: she is prat-falls and screw-ups, dream sequences and meltdowns. Directed by Michael Showalter from a script by Showalter and Laura Terruso, Field stars as the titular Doris, a shy, somewhat mousey 60-something who spent her adult life caring for her recently deceased mother. She quietly works a data entry job at a company that has evolved around her.
Doris tends to hoard items, surrounding herself with objects she insists she may need one day. She’s noticeable up to a point, thanks to her vibrant, mismatched clothes, but ultimately, she is overlooked as uninteresting and unimportant. That is, until she becomes enamored with her younger boss, John (Max Greenfield).
A self-help seminar she attends with best friend (a delightful Tyne Daly) motivates her to pursue him, first as a friend, and Showalter and Terruso strike a fine balance of sweetness as the naively endearing Doris imagines a romance with John. Greenfield is 34 to Field’s 68, and their chemistry helps demonstrate the biggest achievement of Doris, both in its message and in its casting — that age is just a number.
The focus on the idea that one is never too young to begin again is refreshing here, not stale, especially as the script touches on younger generations looking to the elders only in terms of them being “cute” or “quaint” instead of human beings. Daly’s character warns of such sentimentality, but Doris isn’t interested in cynicism or cruelty. Doris, thanks to her quirkiness, may become the person hipsters want to hang out with at parties, but their amusement quickly turns to genuine affection. She isn’t the butt of the joke.
Greenfield is strong in a relative straight-man role, funny yet far toned down from his Schmidt ways on New Girl. He’s at ease on screen with Field, as are co-stars (as coworkers) Natasha Lyonne, Kumail Nanjiani, and Rich Sommer. Their roles are small — too small for their recognizability — but they make the best of their few lines. Stephen Root stands out as Doris’ brother Todd, who tries to balance his love for his sister with his desire to have her move on (and out of the family house), all the while placating his less-than-empathetic wife (Wendi McLendon-Covey).
Doris may dare to go to electronica concerts as a chance to be near John, but moving away from her hidey-hole of a cluttered house and the bad habits she inherited from her mother isn’t easy. Field gives Doris as much depth as she can; the film only flirts with the psychology of hoarding and only touches on the notion that Todd got to live his life while Doris gave up most of hers. Still, there’s pathos in between punchlines.
At a Q&A session after the screening, after Field received a standing ovation from the SXSW crowd, one man took a turn at the mic to make a statement: That even with Field dressed in silly clothes, too much makeup, and hair pieces, he still wouldn’t pass up a chance to be with her. That’s the key to Hello, My Name is Doris — the movie isn’t groundbreaking, but it is a tender-hearted comedy led by Sally Field, an actress who hasn’t graced theater marquees in far too long. And, no matter its flaws, that’s the kind of movie you don’t pass up.
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. You can find her on Twitter.