The first time that the heroine in the disarming comedy “Hello, My Name Is Doris” sees the kid, they’re in a crowded office elevator. He’s not a child at all, but somewhere in his mid-30s, which can seem light-years away for a woman who has been of a certain age for decades. So when he jostles Doris (Sally Field), she braces for the usual morning-elevator scrum. Instead, he straightens her lopsided eyeglasses. With this one small, human kindness he does something that astonishes Doris, something that doesn’t often happen to the world’s invisible women: He sees her.
Not that Doris, who’s in her 60s, tries to be invisible, exactly. From her cat-eye glasses to the headscarves that make her look hastily regifted, she seems like someone yearning to be seen. But wrinkles have a way of making women disappear one crease at a time, and Doris, who’s in mourning when the movie opens, has done her part to vanish. When this kid — he turns out to be a new co-worker, John (Max Greenfield, an effortless charmer) — notices Doris, it changes everything. Doris is more than just surprised by his attention, she is also transformed. He makes her visible, most importantly to herself, a revelation that turns Doris into a woman who desires and is desired in turn. It’s a ferocious awakening.
It’s also a fairly slow, gaudy bloom. Like his heroine, the director Michael Showalter eagerly oversells the goods. Right off, he throws in a lot that’s hard on the eyes and ears. There’s Doris’s dowager-dumpster wardrobe and topsy-turvy Staten Island house, along with her mutterings and facial contortions, which seem one tic away from a medical diagnosis. As he puts these messy parts into play, I kept thinking no, no, no, no. It’s all much too much (those shoes, that hair!) and together they announce that you’re in for an ingratiatingly cutesy slog about a lovable kook — except that the movie and Doris aren’t easy to love, which is partly why they work.
The movie starts big and broad at the funeral for Doris’s mother, where everyone is shedding stage tears. Seated pointedly alone, Doris looks ashen enough that she wouldn’t be out of place next to Mom in the open coffin. The whole thing is as dire as the priest’s eulogy, but a few beats later, when Doris’s brother, Todd (the great character actor Stephen Root), speaks to her with unforced feeling, the movie shifts into something more complex. Mr. Showalter continues to play with comic tone and mood — he folds in some slapstick, enables the mugging and stages several cringing fantasy sequences that encourage you to laugh at Doris. It feels cruel, specifically because she isn’t an ordinary American movie protagonist: She’s an older, frumpy, lower-middle-class woman who works in a cubicle.
Indirection can be a beautiful tool in comedy and so it is in “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” which uses this funny, outwardly ridiculous character to tell a simple story about a love that rarely speaks its name, including in movies: that of an older woman for a much younger man. These kinds of screen stories have always been few and far between, and it’s instructive, given the prevailing cultural horror of aging, that some of the more memorable ones turn on her-or-his pathology, whether it’s the deranged actress in “Sunset Boulevard” or the traumatized boy-man in the cult film “Harold and Maude.” Doris has issues, mostly grief and social isolation, which Ms. Field makes movingly real with a performance that reveals its truth incrementally.
Less interestingly, Doris has also become a hoarder. The home that she shared with her long-term invalid mother has become — with its bric-a-brac, bounty of old shampoo bottles and stacks of magazines — a showcase for their obsessive, compulsive behavior and an overly obvious manifestation of Doris’s struggles. Mr. Showalter doesn’t hang out in the house much, but the pack-rat motif allows him and his co-writer, Laura Terruso, to pad the story with some family storming and stressing. This mostly concerns Todd and his wife, Cindy (Wendi McLendon-Covey), urging Doris to declutter and insisting that she visit a therapist (Elizabeth Reaser).
Doris’s burgeoning friendship with John, meanwhile, leads her down alternately goofy and sweet avenues involving online stalking, late-night clubbing and new alliances, including with his girlfriend, Brooklyn (Beth Behrs). Doris’s female attachments, including with her best friend, Roz (Tyne Daly), are particularly appealing because — as with John’s first kindness — they’re reminders that you can tell a lot about people from how they are loved. To that end, in one funny, meaningful passage, Doris ends up at a concert with John, wearing an eye-popping yellow outfit, a look that draws compliments and attention from various young revelers, who, treating her as a kindred spirit, are understandably taken with her. Doris turns out to be an excellent mirror, including for your own chauvinism.
“Hello, My Name Is Doris” is rated R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for some language, none of which should shock anybody. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.