'The Intern': A Tale of Two Stereotypes

Nancy Meyers' latest film is filled with her usual virtues and her usual flaws as well.

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The Intern Written and directed by Nancy Meyers; with Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Anders Holm, Rene Russo, Celia Weston, Linda Lavin

Writer-director Nancy Meyers has gained recognition because her movies are about women (one of them was even called “What Women Want,” and though it focused on a man, it was a man who gained the supernatural ability to read women’s minds and take advantage of them), and also because some of her films, such as “Something’s Gotta Give” and “It’s Complicated,” deal with the romantic lives of older characters. Meyers’ intentions give her a unique position in contemporary Hollywood, but the way in which she carries out those intentions in many cases makes it impossible to treat her work with respect. Her films are childish, shallow, and often annoyingly conservative.

“The Intern,” Meyers’ latest, brings together an older man and a younger woman, and if the movie has a central virtue, it is that Meyers never tries to make them lovers. What does happen between them, however, suffers from all the usual flaws of her work (though to her credit, she has never again sunk as unpleasantly low as she did in “What Women Want”).

Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro), a 70-year-old widower, has retired and does not know how to fill the new void in his life. To emphasize how out of touch he is, the movie tells us that before retirement he ran a factory that made phone books – a product that has become obsolete, as has Ben himself, perhaps. But then he makes a chance discovery: a fashion website is offering an internship to retirees, and he applies and is accepted. One of the gaping holes in “The Intern” is that we never understand who proposed this program. It certainly wasn’t Jules (Anne Hathaway), the founder and manager of the site, whose husband (Anders Holm) gave up his own career to stay home and care for their young daughter. As usually happens in American movies whose heroine has both a career and a family, Jules is uptight as hell beneath the charming mannerisms (she roams the huge workspace of her business on a bicycle; actually, we see her do this once, and then the movie forgets all about it).

Jules, it seems, didn’t know about the internship program, or maybe just didn’t like it, and she certainly does not want Ben as her personal intern despite his obvious qualifications. Perhaps it’s because Ben reminds her of her father: He always shows up for work in an elegant gray suit, which makes him stand out from the casually dressed office crowd. Or maybe Jules has trouble delegating and knows that Ben is not only professionally qualified to help but has the necessary human skills to detect the distress that she is so busy hiding (“The Intern” suggest that senior citizens develop a unique ability to understand others; if only that were always the case).

But not to worry: Jules and Ben will, of course, develop a close, mutually beneficial friendship that Meyers’ thin, predictable screenplay unfolds before us. I should admit at this point that there is something amiable about “The Intern,” a kind of urban fairy tale about two problematic social groups: stressed-out career women struggling to combine work and family, and older people who, while still perfectly capable, feel like they have no role left to play in the world. But the movie’s examination of both issues is shallow, formulaic, and – as was the case in Meyers’ previous work – conservative on its most basic level.

Conservative but painless

Jules is a stereotypical career woman, failing to find the expected satisfaction in her work. The crisis, when it happens, will surprise only those viewers who have not recently seen an American movie about a high-strung professional woman whose husband gave up his job, a move presented as emasculating (did I mention that the movie is conservative?).

To make things easier for Jules, her investors suggest that she appoint an executive above her, with whom to share responsibility for the website’s operation and success. Jules hesitates: On the one hand, this solution will ease the strain between her demanding job and her deteriorating home life; on the other, it means letting someone else supervise the successful business that she herself dreamed up. Again, can anyone fail to guess how Jules will resolve the conflict with the wise help of paternal Ben (and a little assistance from her sloppily depicted husband)?

Meyers wisely chose not to make Ben and Jules’ relationship romantic, but widowed Ben still needs a love life, which appears in the form of the company masseuse. She is played by the lovely Rene Russo, who is embarrassingly squandered and even exploited by the movie (which pits her against an older, less sexy woman, played by Linda Lavin, who tries to hit on Ben and is not just rejected, but portrayed as a laughingstock).

All this leaves us with the two stars, Anne Hathaway, who had a better cinematic stint in the fashion business in “The Devil Wears Prada,” and Robert De Niro. Hathaway does her best to squeeze whatever she can out of the character Meyers has given her, but you often find yourself wanting to tell both her and Jules to relax. De Niro is pleasant enough and – for the first time in a long while – not tiresome. But the figure of the wise, kindhearted older man, whom everyone – except Jules – instantly adores, is more a monotonous idea than a fully fleshed-out human being. If, as I’ve said, the movie is amiable, it is thanks to the chemistry that develops between De Niro and Hathaway and to a few well-written, if predictable, scenes. There aren’t many of them, but they make watching “The Intern” painless enough.

Meyers has missed an opportunity here: She could have offered, through her comedy, a serious discussion of the generation gap that Jules and Ben represent, as well as of the difference between Ben’s old career and his new job, which represents the new capitalism of the Internet age. Ben teaches Jules a great deal, by virtue of being all the things described above; what Jules teaches Ben, when they stay late at work one night drinking wine, is how to create a Facebook account. That sums up what “The Intern” has to say about the generation gap – other than the idea that Ben knows Jules and understands what she wants (again, what a woman wants) better than she does herself. In other words, “The Intern” is a typical Nancy Meyers movie with some of her work’s usual virtues, but also all of her usual flaws, this time perhaps more pronounced than ever.