“The Intern” is easily digestible comfort food, a movie so harmless that any criticism of it risks coming across as an unprovoked attack. The latest effort from Nancy Meyers is the type of film that inspired a round of applause from the crowd of senior citizens at the Saturday matinee showing that I attended. “The Intern” has the cuteness of a puppy and it is certain to elicit a smile.
And yet, despite its obvious appeal, “The Intern” is a frustrating exercise in mediocrity. The problems start with the premise: In an effort to revitalize his life in the midst of retirement and to help him cope with the death of his wife, Ben Whittaker (Robert DeNiro) enrolls in the new “senior intern” program at a bustling online clothing company in Brooklyn. Ben is placed under the supervision of the company’s boss, a workaholic named Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). Jules is a brilliant businessperson who is responsible for turning her company into a giant player in the fashion industry, but she shows little respect for her employees and struggles to balance the demands of her company with marriage and motherhood. Ben and Jules eventually strike an unlikely friendship, and Ben helps Jules finally achieve the work-life solace that she desires.
“The Intern” attempts to make a feminist argument, but it undercuts that message by portraying Jules as someone whose professional success comes at the expense of her personal happiness. Furthermore, the movie missteps by making Ben the source of Jules’ personal redemption. Would Jules have been able to alleviate the tensions in her life without Ben’s guidance? “The Intern” apparently thinks not. The movie is also annoying in its treatment of Ben. He quickly wins the admiration of his twenty-something colleagues and Jules refers to him as her best friend. However, the millennials look at Ben with an “Aw, isn’t he adorable!” level of condescension. Ben’s coworkers say things such as “You aren’t as old as I thought you were!,” as if they are shocked that a 70-year old man could possess vibrant energy. “The Intern” tries to challenge traditional age and gender roles, but it feels vaguely ageist and misogynist because it fails to elevate Jules and Ben above stereotypical characterizations.
Of course, “The Intern” should not be read as a serious social commentary. This is pure genre fluff, and DeNiro and Hathaway do everything in their power to make the movie immune to criticism. DeNiro, one of cinema’s all-time greats, delivers a touching and lived-in performance. He beautifully portrays Ben Whittaker as the epitome of class, wisdom, and fashion, and his presence onscreen has a calming effect. Hathaway, on the other hand, fights an uphill battle from the start, as her character is initially grating in every possible way. Hathaway succeeds in tearing down the viewer’s first impression of her character, and her performance comes from a deeply genuine place. Hathaway and DeNiro have a natural rapport that makes their shared scenes work, even though their dialogue circles through a series of clichés. The always delightful Rene Russo (seriously, she needs to be cast in more movies) also shines as a love interest of Ben’s, but her character is thinly sketched.
“The Intern” has a sweetness that is tough to resist, but it is a far cry from Nancy Meyers’ best work. Meyers is a wonderful writer and director, but it would be wise to eschew “The Intern” and watch her past gems instead, which include “Father of the Bride” (which she wrote but did not direct), “The Parent Trap,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” and “It’s Complicated.” Those movies are sweet and perceptive and devoid of the narrative traps that doom “The Intern.”