Nancy Meyers’ genial workplace comedy does the job it was hired to do
The Intern (2015)
Directed by Nancy Meyers
Cast: Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo
Behold, America (and, by extension, the rest of the world as they consume our country’s pop-cultural output): Robert De Niro at his cutest and cuddliest.
Damn. It’s not like De Niro can’t be cute and cuddly. He’s one of our best actors; he can be anything he wants. It’s just that so many of our acting greats (Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson) have let Hollywood make toothless parodies of them. Ever since producers of the Meet the Parents franchise backed a dumptruck full of easy money up to his doorstep, De Niro has been taking on less challenging roles. Sure, he got nominated for an Academy Award for his role as the football-loving dad in 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook. But compare that to his previous acting nomination—as the tattooed psycho in 1991’s Cape Fear. Really, which of those was the more memorable performance?
And so it is with adjusted expectations that we greet Mr. De Niro in Nancy Meyers' “old people are cute” comedy The Intern. Meyers (writer of Private Benjamin and Baby Boom, director of What Women Want and Something’s Gotta Give) knows a thing or two about crafting a crowd pleaser. Few will walk away from The Intern angry or dissatisfied. It’s a genial, mildly funny, intermittently emotional comedy staffed with friendly-looking people. Who can fault it for that?
De Niro plays Ben Whittaker, a smiling, twinkle-eyed widower who finds himself at something of a dead end at age 70. He’s long retired. His wife has passed away. He’s traveled everywhere he can think of, taken up several hobbies, and still he’s bored. One day, though, he spots a flyer for a “senior intern” program at an up-and-coming online retailer. In just over a year, tech-savvy go-getter Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway) has built her little online clothes-shopping site into a multimillion dollar empire. But she’s overworked, understaffed and can’t bring herself to delegate authority to anyone else. Enter Ben, who—unbeknownst to Jules—has been hired on as her personal intern.
At first Jules ignores Ben, who dutifully shows up every day in suit and tie. As far as Jules is concerned, she neither needs nor wants help. So Ben busies himself helping out all the other folks in the office. He solves the romantic problems of Jason (Adam DeVine from “Workaholics”), fixes the housing crisis of Davis (Zack Pearlman, The Virginity Hit) and even manages to organize the messiest desk in the building. Eventually, of course, he winds his way closer to Jules, whose personal and private life is in more of a tailspin than she lets on. The company is experiencing serious growth pains, and the venture capitalists want to bring in an experienced CEO to help out. Meanwhile, on the homefront, the retail genius is having trouble finding time to connect with her weary house husband (Anders Holm, also from “Workaholics”) and her apple-cheeked little daughter. What’s a modern gal to do?
The Intern doesn’t require much heavy lifting from its characters. Every time a major dramatic crisis threatens to rear its ugly head, Meyers’ script heads it off at the pass. At one point, for example, a suspicious Jules asks her assistant to transfer Ben to another department. Normally, this is the sort of secret betrayal that will come back to haunt characters in the third-act reveal. But not here. In the very next scene, Jules apologizes profusely and asks Ben to continue working with her. On the one hand, it’s good that Meyers’ knows enough to steer clear of cliché. On the other hand, solving every crisis with an amicable conversation makes The Intern a rather low-stakes affair.
De Niro and Hathaway are both fine in their respective roles, and they summon up a nice chemistry with one another. Of the two, Hathaway has the more realistic character, a modern-day career woman feeling the stresses of balancing work and motherhood. De Niro’s character, in contrast, is so magically perfect you expect him to disappear off into the sunset like Will Smith at the end of The Legend of Bagger Vance. At least Meyers is smart enough not to have Ben “mansplain” his way through the story. Ben’s a solid guy. He’s polite, respectful and has a lifetime worth of business skills to impart. But he isn’t here to rescue Jules or to give her all the answers. Mostly, he’s just around for moral support—telling her he admires her and assuring her she really can do it all.
It would have been nice, perhaps, if Meyers had given her likable cast of characters more to do. Mostly, they just sit around talking things through and helping one another until various lessons (about ageism and sexism) are learned, like some grown-up episode of “Sesame Street.” But a comfort-food cast, a string of guilt-free chuckles, a slight tear or two and a generalized warm, fuzzy feeling make The Intern a sweetly forgettable comedy-drama for the late summer season.