Good lifestyle movies welcome the viewer into a new, believable world, filled with detail, and that is exactly what “Hello, My Name is Doris” achieves. Directed by Michael Showalter (“Wet Hot American Summer” (2001)), the film centers on the eccentric Doris (Sally Field), an older woman who tries to retake control of her life and pursue a younger man. Flipping conventional gender roles, the film takes seriously the notion of a younger man-older woman relationship, without limiting itself to stereotypes. Doris isn’t just a cute grandmother, just like her love interest and new art director, John Fremont (Max Greenfield) isn’t just a vapid hunk. In Doris’ search for happiness, Showalter simultaneously balances witty humor and wrenching emotion, allowing us to fall in love with this “crazy cat lady” while revealing her, and all the other characters, as lovably flawed.
At first, Doris seems to be limited to “crazy cat lady.” Her house is filled with old papers, tchotchkes, books, yet we learn that this seemingly cute persona is quite serious: Doris is a hoarder. She’s obviously eccentric, with her ancient, massive computer and airplane headphones at work, but the film expands her image as stereotypical “grandma” to reveal Doris’ struggle with the passing of her mother. Her friend Roz (Tyne Daly) struggles too, with the passing of her husband, and they help each other through their pain. Even in serious scenes, Showalter inserts humorous interludes. Roz gets yelled at for taking free cheese before a lecture, and the two friends run in an indoor track where a younger woman yells at them for walking too slowly. We usually see New York City through the eyes of a younger character, so it is refreshing to experience the city through the eyes of Doris. It’s just plain fun watching her and Roz, and the film does well to include scenes that tell us about their character and relationship, rather than just move the narrative forward.
Of course, the fun doesn’t last forever. Doris’ brother Todd (Stephen Root) and his wife Cynthia (Wendi McLendon-Covey) continue to push Doris to give up her house and her mother’s things. Doris of course can’t, as her performance transcends comic “freak-outs” toward real, raw problems. The simultaneous rawness and humor continues as she tries to woo John—at one point stealing his pencil as a keepsake for her desk. Doris is both cute and somewhat obsessive, a mixture that creates a uniquely ironic tone that challenges the viewer to feel sadness and humor simultaneously.
Showalter directly undermines simplicity through the use of Doris’ sexual fantasies, reminiscent of her romance novels. Doris imagines instances with John, often comically, kissing in the office or taking off his shirt. These fantasies both mock desire and legitimize it, such that the film really does promote the potential of a relationship between a younger man and an older woman. The film ultimately makes the case that older women are real people, not just stereotypes, and that they can be friends with younger people without being their mother. Doris isn’t just a way for us to see John as a nice guy for hanging out with her; John and Doris help heal each other as friends, regardless of the potential for romantic interest.
Showalter does jeer at the “yuppie-ness” of city folks, through Doris meeting a woman who makes her own vanilla or a fashion photographer who can only say “that’s so sick, that’s so tight,” but the intention remains genuine. “Hello, My Name is Doris” may joke about generational differences of love, but suggests that young and old alike grapple with common humanity, and ultimately have something unique to teach each other.
See “Hello, My Name is Doris” at Tinseltown and Kimball’s at various times throughout the week, and check back next week for the popular, surprisingly deep Disney flick, “Zootopia.”