In what feels like a dreadfully long overdue return to comedy, Sally Field is the complete charmer we’ve always known her to be in 2015 SXSW hit Hello, My Name is Doris. Her recent career successes have been as first lady Mary Todd in Lincoln (earning another Oscar nomination) and the television melodrama Brothers and Sisters. Even her superhero entries were on the dour side with the ill-fated Spider-Man reboots having her cast as a sobbing Aunt May. This return to levity is so welcome that Doris, framed squarely around the actress’s winning screen presence, can be forgiven for it’s occasional thinness and sitcom-y predictability.
Doris is like if the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of recent Zooey Deschanel stereotype never found a sad manchild to help “save her from herself.” Her lonely circumstances and hoarding behavior mean she keeps mostly to herself, save a domineering brother (Stephen Root) and a headstrong best friend (Tyne Daly). But Doris is also a dreamer, living more in the fantasies she creates for herself than in the world around her – until she falls for a new man in the office (Max Greenfield) significantly her junior. A fast friendship with the beau brings a gaggle of youthful dimwits into Doris’s fold and her pining brings her out of her shell. The elements here sound ripe for something crushingly sad or slapstick silly, and the film tries to have it both ways.
The film is blessed to have a performer with the smarts of Field at its center. She provides Doris more emotional complexity than is sometimes afforded her my the thin screenplay, and handles the abrupt tonal shifts that the film can’t quite shoulder on its own. It’s something to see her smiling so much in a film again, her infectious personality radiating through Doris’s mousey exoskeleton. Doris’s naiveté is as real as her pain, and the performance is at it’s brightest with the two played in the same hand.
But for all of the predictable notes and sometimes bland presentation, the film itself is quite winning for its straightforward, digestible ambitions – even if it holds itself back. While the film is elevated and energized by the central performance, it could have used some of the soulful ambition that fuels Field’s work. But director Michael Showalter (of Wet Hot American Summer fame) assembles and steers a charming ensemble to witty effect in their own right, but none with the heights of Field’s lovelorn sweetheart.
Sally Field does leave a lasting impression on your heart, finally placed again in a role that serves her full range of gifts to make us laugh and pull the heartstrings. She’s a national treasure, dammit, so give her more opportunities like Doris.