Nancy Meyers has been a maestro of light-hearted but shallow Tinseltown romantic comedies for years, and “The Intern”, which she wrote and directed, is the latest. Ms. Meyers has long been aligned with the automatic Hollywood groove of making women emotionally stunted and whimpering characters desperately seeking a man — or a man’s help — to put them right side up. In “The Intern” that oft-chronicled refrain is an embarrassing spectacle that initially elicits a chuckle but quickly grows cringe-worthy.
Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) is a confident 70-year-old widower getting back on his feet. He says he must keep going and venture out into the world, anywhere, even if it’s just yards from his Manhattan apartment. He soon gets a new job as a senior intern. A thriving start-up women’s clothing business run by Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), the friendlier and anti-Miranda Priestly of Prada Land, finds Ben in his element among a workforce of 20-somethings. The sensitive, technology-challenged Ben, who enjoys a semi-Travis Bickle moment in a mirror, is also a mellow, meditating rock star-like figure among his junior colleagues, while the younger Jules and her secretary Becky (Christina Scherer) are confused, conflicted emotional wrecks.
“The Intern” offers a few genuine laughs, often in the guise of some choice sight-gags reserved for an Austin Powers film. Aside from one or two brief serious episodes Ms. Meyers’ film doesn’t linger, dissipating into the sunset as its end credits roll. “The Intern” has its share of condescending characters and a patronizing, nasty-edged tone. There are tired, recycled and unfunny zingers about age. The film engages in faux-feminist sentiment voiced almost entirely by male characters (specifically Ben), while trashing its women characters as craven and scornful (Patty, played by Linda Lavin) and insecure (the aforementioned Becky). “The Intern” initially shows Jules as a cold, imperious presence.
The film aspires to embrace the Melissa Mayer life of a multitasking 21st century female CEO while believing that Jules must be conflicted enough to choose the kind of life she should lead. It’s the men, including Jules’s stay-at-home husband (Anders Holm) who lecture and reassure Jules. They try convincing Jules she’s doing the right thing in a company whose leadership is threatened. If Jules was able to singlehandedly build About The Fit from the ground up and be successful why would she suddenly need to be patronized and advised by Ben or other men about her personal or professional life? “The Intern” gives off the notion that a powerful woman somehow needs to be rescued and/or unable to work through a crisis without losing her emotional composure.
None of the film’s women have a real relationship with Jules. Either there’s no such thing as sisterhood in business or the film isolates Jules from the many women who populate her business. Or both. It’s a strange alienation. We barely get to know them. Jules socializes solely with her male subordinates. The inference is that Jules and her female subordinates, including Becky, are persona non grata after hours. Meanwhile, Jules’s mother (voiced by Mary Kay Place in phone conversations) is incapable of saying “I love you” to her daughter, whose resulting venom is transmitted in this hyper-stimulated electronic age so predictably.
The film’s women just don’t connect and seem to despise or resent each other. The stay-at-home mothers envy and judge Jules for working. And at work Jules ignores Becky’s contributions (and some male workers) as some real world CEOs do, but the New York City headquarters of About The Fit is such a tight-knit office that my-door-is-always-open Jules’s tone-deafness seems incredible especially as she travels around the office on her bicycle. There’s no prerequisite, of course, that the women in “The Intern” must connect, but at the same time there’s plenty of male-bonding in the film.
Women in “The Intern” are purely of servicer quality to men or just plain inept by themselves. There’s very little inbetween. A woman (Celia Weston) who drives Jules around suddenly and predictably — courtesy of the film’s spiteful dictates — doesn’t know which way is up. The negative stereotype about women drivers (albeit thought of as more careful drivers than men) is reinforced and played for laughs but it feels mean-spirited as do various other parts of the film toward women. (By the way, any male “infractions” in “The Intern” are captured at a distance and largely through the male gaze.)
There’s an insincerity about what the director has to say about modern-day working women and the challenges they face in a male-dominated world. Jules says accurate things about sexism and being a CEO in a male corporate culture but her female director undercuts her in several scenes, including at least two capitulations that make Jules look impulsive and one-dimensional. The aftermath of one of these relents feels hollow and overly simplistic. Why give Jules the power as a strong can-do business leader if you eviscerate her at the same time? The misogyny in the film is barely veiled, and more than a few spectators will be too busy laughing with — not at — “The Intern” to notice it. I mostly despaired at many of its events, to the point of sadness.
Fiona (Rene Russo), the company’s in-house masseuse, exclusively services the flawless Mr. Fix-It-Ben, so perfect he’s practically robotic. The film depicts Fiona’s function as a quasi-sexual servicer, something at odds I presume, with any About The Fit employee handbook on harassment. Comedy is all well and good but its cynical and hostile underbelly beats insistently throughout “The Intern”, a junky, spiky and occasionally disjointed affair. (Ms. Meyers’s film also has an odd action sequence that emerges from nowhere.) The film boasts an appealing performance from Mr. De Niro, who mixes avuncular charm and benevolence. He and Ms. Hathaway work well together onscreen. But at the end of the working day “The Intern” knows exactly whose side it’s really on.
Also with: Zack Pearlman, Andrew Rannells, Nat Wolff, Adam DeVine, Molly Bernard, Christine Evangelista, Peter Vack.
“The Intern” is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some suggestive content and brief strong language. The film’s running time is two hours and one minute. (And I’m not sure why.)
Omar P.L. Moore is the editor of The Popcorn Reel movie review website. He can be reached on Twitter @popcornreel, on YouTube at youtube.com/popcornreel or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.