There’s something delightfully old-fashioned about Nancy Meyers’ “The Intern” that makes it more entertaining than it has any right to be. It’s best exemplified in her lead actor Robert De Niro, one of the kings of old school cool, and the character he plays, Ben, the last of a dying breed of real gentlemen. In Meyers’ hands the story of a 70-year-old widower venturing into the fast-paced, energetic tech world is every bit as breezy as one might expect, but she still finds a little room to hit on a few salient points that make it more engaging than her usual trifles.
It’s impossible not to think of “The Devil Wears Prada” when first encountering Anne Hathaway as Jules Ostin, the founder of a wildly successful online fashion site. Jules is young, peppy, a little weird, and very overworked. She scoots around the office on a bike and, despite having over 200 employees, still answers customer service calls herself. She’s also very sad, and stops to cry a lot. What she really needs is the kind of guy who still carries around a handkerchief. Just so happens Ben is one of those guys.
Joining Jules’ company as part of a senior internship program, Ben is looking to fill a void after retirement and his wife’s death. It’s impossible not to feel something for the old coot as he shoots his application video, a process he barely understands at all. Jules doesn’t necessarily want an intern, much less old enough to be her grandfather, but it isn’t long before she’s attuned to his pearls of manly wisdom, a stark contrast to the New Age girly men (Zack Pearlman, Adam Devine and Jason Orley ) that populate the office. A man should always wear a suit to work, carry a briefcase, tuck in your shirt, and keep a handkerchief in case a lady needs it. But the stress is still getting to her, and it doesn’t help that the company’s board wants to hire a CEO to take some of the load off. She’s not into it, although her neglected stay-at-home husband (Anders Holm) is eager to spend more time with his wife.
Although the promos tease a romantic comedy, “The Intern” isn’t really about that. Nobody wants to see De Niro and Hathaway hook up, not even in the fluffy, totally unbelievable world of a Nancy Meyers film would that fly. What develops is a genuinely sweet mentorship/friendship between Jules and Ben, with the latter teaching her that it’s okay to be a strong, powerful, successful woman. It’s a realization he has to warm up to himself, coming from a time when it was men who brought home the bacon.
Meyers lays on the cute pretty thick, which is unavoidable when Hathaway is at her most doe-eyed. She’s done this kind of role before but she finds great chemistry working with the expressive and lively De Niro. Their scenes in and out of the office are a lot of fun. What doesn’t work is when Meyers tries to add more serious concerns into the mix. Jules’ marriage is on the rocks, and Ben is cozying up with a hot in-house masseuse (Rene Russo), but none of these storylines have any bite to them. Also, there’s an odd “Ocean’s 11”-style heist sequence that sees De Niro completely switch characters and go into gangster mode. While audiences may get a chuckle out of it there’s no denying how badly it fits with the film’s tone.
In the end, Meyers goes so retro that even her message feels like something out of the 1980s. While the central point that elders still have much to contribute is valid and definitely worthy, Meyers also seems to suggest that a woman will never find that perfect work/life balance, an idea that is long past its expiration date. Fortunately, Meyers doesn’t lean too heavily on broad generation gap humor, or at least not as much as “The Internship” did just a couple of years ago telling a similar story. “The Intern” benefits most from the connection between Hathaway and De Niro. It’s as easy to enjoy as it is easy to be cynical about.