“Where do you see yourself in ten years?” a very young interviewer asks Robert De Niro at the beginning of “The Intern.”
De Niro answers with a genial smile. He’s there partly for a respite from a depressing routine of regular funerals.
The underlying message of “The Intern” seems to be that young people can often learn from the experience of their elders. That common sense dictum seems to have gotten lost in a youth-obsessed culture, and writer/director Nancy Meyers’ new comedy “The Intern” addresses it with the attitude that everything old’s getting new again.
In “The Intern,” Robert De Niro plays Ben Whittaker, a 70 year old, retired widower, who wants to get out of a rut. His rut is comfortable enough – he doesn’t need to flip burgers to make the rent – which is a good thing because you’d have to be a fast food CEO to make the payments on his stylish Brooklyn home. Ben in fact is a career business executive, with decades of VP-level experience in the now-obsolete phone book publishing business.
Ben answers an ad for a new “Senior Intern” program at a fast-growing start-up which is the brainchild of detail-obsessed, workaholic Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). Ben, clearly the most vigorous and capable of the new senior citizen interns, is assigned as a personal intern to the pathologically delegation-challenged Jules, who initially resists giving him anything to do. Ben, however, turns out to be what human resources types like to call a highly motivated self-starter and takes the initiative to find things to do.
In fact, Ben is virtually a fairy god-intern sent by Providence to straighten out Jules’ life. Her business sense is brilliant, but her company may be growing faster than she and her very young employees can manage it, and her stay-at-home husband (Anders Holm) and movie-cute daughter (JoJo Kushner) are feeling her absence. Ben is in fact too good to be true – he wears a suit perfectly, arranges his endless wardrobe of neckties by color (his walk-in closet is almost fetishistic) and always carries a pocket handkerchief (not to be confused with a pocket square) for the benefit of crying women. He’s a seasoned business professional who digests and analyzes sales reports and spreadsheets faster and with more insight than anyone else in the office. He knows the fastest routes between any two points in New York City and where to get the best takeout chicken soup. He’s great with kids, gives infallible life lessons to his new, young male colleagues, and in one of the movie’s most audacious strokes, is the one to advocate feminist principles. There’s an element of a fish out of water, as Ben is initially in over his head with the modern technology in a business devoted to strictly online sales, but even that’s a red herring. The initially computer-challenged Ben regards the cyberworld as just another challenge, and masters it. In fact if there’s a problem in this entire, well-written and well-crafted movie, it’s that Ben never, ever actually makes a mistake.
Meyers directs traffic so smoothly in this workplace fantasy you may not notice. In any event, De Niro’s performance is so likeable no one’s going to care. The point of the movie is really the development of the relationship between Ben and Jules, which starts out as strictly business but becomes extremely personal. Not too worry, Meyers is far too smart a writer to let anything romantic develop between the two main characters. A budding romance with in-house masseuse Rene Russo takes up that slack, and Meyers relegates that to a backseat subplot. The point is that this smart, creative, hard-working and ambitious young woman needs a more mature advisor, and Ben actually fills the void left by Jules’ unseen, carping mother (voice performance by Mary Kay Place).
Jules is more problematical. Her character is also an archetype, albeit a less fulfilling one. She rides a bike through the office, yet is late for every meeting. In the hands of a less likeable actress, she might not be a character at all but a grabbag of gender grievances. Can a working woman have it all? Subversively, for a movie, Meyers suggests the answer might be no. Sooner or later, something does have to give, it seems.
Meyers is unnecessarily distracted by the artificial issue of working moms versus stay-at-home moms, which isn’t even a question in many American families that need two incomes. But she brilliantly avoids the pitfall common among all too many Hollywood scripts whose writers haven’t actually had a job since work-study in the mailroom junior year. There is a strong sense of what people actually do for a living in this movie, even if the workplace milieu is seldom this amiable in real life.
Bolstered by gorgeous New York City location photography by veteran DP Stephen Goldblatt (“Outland,” “Lethal Weapon,” “Lethal Weapon 2,” “The Help”), this is a particularly handsome production. “The Intern” is directed with unostentatious self-confidence and maturity. The movie is a little long for a modern comedy (121 minutes) but could have been longer, as Meyers clearly wants to develop all of her eclectic characters. That “The Intern” never actually turns into an ensemble piece is a little amazing. Likeable supporting performances from Andrew Rannells, Adam DeVine, Zack Pearlman, Jason Orley and Christina Scherer add energy and dimension to the frenetic office environment. Linda Lavin is equal parts amusing and repellant as a predatory widow who sees Ben as the prize apple in a rapidly dwindling orchard
“The Intern” is now showing at theaters across the Capital District including: the Bow Tie Cinemas Movieland 6 in Schenectady, the Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas 11 & BTX in Saratoga Springs, the Bow Tie Wilton Mall Cinemas & BTX, the Regal Cinemas Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX, the Rotterdam Square Cinema, the Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13 & RPX, the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX, the Spectrum 8 on Delaware Avenue in Albany and the Regal Cinemas East Greenbush 8.