Robert DeNiro Charms In a Story of Unlikely Friendship
DIRECTOR: NANCY MEYERS/2015
Writer/Director Nancy Meyers is known for her warm and fuzzy midlife rom-coms (It’s Complicated,Something’s Gotta Give). Her newest film, The Intern, is still warm and fuzzy but not a romantic comedy – and that’s a good thing. The Intern has several themes running through it but at its heart it’s a refreshing take on intergenerational friendship.
Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) is a retired widower, filling his life with hobbies but looking for something meaningful to do. When he reads that a local internet start-up, About the Fit, is hiring senior interns he applies and sails through the interviews. Ben is not a folksy old dodderer: he’s smart, vibrant, confident – and he’s got decades of business experience behind him. His attaché case may seem like an artifact from another era, but he has plenty to offer this young company.
It takes a while for the founder of About the Fit to realize this. Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway) is a driven perfectionist with a reputation for being a difficult boss. She has no interest in the senior intern program and when Ben is assigned to be her personal assistant she bluntly tells him she won’t be needing his services. As she ignores him Ben befriends the younger interns and other employees and finds ways to make himself useful. In a plot twist that is a bit of a contrivance he even winds up as Jules’ driver – and as she observes Ben day after day, Jules comes to respect and rely on him.
This isn’t a complicated story. Jules is facing crises both professional and personal, and Ben will help her navigate them. But Ben is not reduced to a saintly elder dispensing wisdom. Yes, he does mentor the young dudes in the office (encouraging them to tuck in their shirts and carry handkerchiefs) and yes, he does give Jules some feminist real-talk about marriage when she most needs it.
But De Niro imbues Ben with such warmth,wit and vibrancy that his age recedes. He’s not, primarily, an old man – he’s just a man, and a good one.
The dynamic between Ben and Jules grows beyond intern/boss and even beyond mentor/mentee. They become friends: and that, I salute. Real friendship between men and women has become more common in film, but we’re still accustomed to thinking that friendship can’t transcend generational divides. As the The Intern goes on, Ben’s coworkers seem to pay less and less attention to his age and just enjoy his company – and he enjoys theirs.
As would be expected of a Nancy Meyers’ film, this is a feel-good movie. There are rough patches, but no villains. Even Jules’ reputation for being a tough boss seems unearned from what we actually see on screen. This is no Devil Wears Prada scenario. Jules is just a bit of a control freak who works long hours. The only unlikeable characters are the disembodied voice of Jules’ critical mother heard over the phone, and a couple of catty stay-at-home moms who disapprove of Jules’ career. (That subplot seems a bit implausible at this point in history, by the way.)
The Intern is perhaps overly sweet and sentimental: I can’t imagine a rosier picture of New York than you’ll find in this film. It also has a section in the middle of the film – in which Ben and his intern buddies save Jules from a carelessly sent email – that is much sillier than the rest of the movie. It’s an unfortunate misstep in a movie that otherwise manages to maintain a mellow tone. There are also some odd lose ends in the movie – hints that things were left on the editing floor, and the seams still show. But the central performances are strong (De Niro controls his mugging well) and Meyers leaves us with a nicely unresolved ending. A tougher critic than I am could find a lot to fault about The Intern, but it was an easy movie to enjoy. Like the cups of coffee being served over and over in this movie, The Intern is warm and comforting and goes down smoothly.