The Intern (2015) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some suggestive content and brief strong language
Running Time: 121 min.
Cast: Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Anders Holm, Adam DeVine, Zack Pearlman, Christina Scherer, Rene Russo, Andrew Rannels, JoJo Kushner, Jason Orley, Linda Lavin, Celia Weston
Small role: Nat Wolff, Mary Kay Place
Director: Nancy Meyers
Screenplay: Nancy Meyers
Review published September 26, 2015
If you know your Nancy Meyers (It's Complicated, The Holiday) films, you know what to expect from The Intern -- postcard-worthy comedies that give you cute, affluent characters, lots of soft-hearted whimsy, shameless attempts at crowd-pleasing comedy, and oodles and oodles of home decorating ideas. Critics mostly ignore her output, but she has gone on to become the most lucrative female director of all time.
Robert De Niro (The Bag Man, Grudge Match) stars as retired 70-year-old widower Ben Whittaker, who has tried in his advanced age to keep himself busy -- travel, cooking, yoga, tai chi, learning Mandarin, and, alas, funerals -- none of it really feels substantial enough to stoke the fire of his lust for life. After seeing a flyer advertising a call for senior applicants, what he really feels he needs is to go to work again, applying for an internship with "About the Fit", a booming Brooklyn-based start-up catering to the latest fashions online, and they just so happen to be looking for people like Ben to bolster their business portfolio ("grey is the new green" is the mantra for reasons that are never explained or explored). The 18-month-old company is the brainchild of a local thirty-something entrepreneur named Jules Ostin (Hathaway, Interstellar), a workaholic who has poured so much blood, sweat and tears into making her business a success, she scarcely has time to keep her home life afloat. Former executive Ben is immediately assigned to be her personal assistant, one she thinks she doesn't need, but his nose for business and maturity soon become the things she didn't know she, or her company, needed.
I can't really knock Meyers on presentation, mostly because she understands all too well that she is making a formula dessert film crafted to push all of the right buttons in its target demographic of predominantly mature female viewers. Everything about the film is adorable, from the playful, attractive cast, right down to the little doilies on the living room furniture. A Meyers film is the place where we all want to live, work and play. It's a world that doesn't quite feel lived in by its characters, who mill about as if part of a living diorama of Brooklyn's best side, all explaining basic things to each other for our benefit in ways that the savviest, most well-educated 20-something professionals would never do, written not for realism but in order to make sure my grandmother will be up to speed with hip crowd jargon throughout.
I like the cast. De Niro is ingratiating as Ben, without a doubt the most likeable, gentle character that the veteran actor has played in his entire career. In fact he may be so affable as 'gentle Ben' that he starts to feel like a figment of Meyers' imagination, like a resourceful butler who is always around to bail our hero out of trouble, whether it is Bruce Wayne or Richie Rich -- let's call him Harry Poppins. He's like the dad that none of these young shlubs have ever had, imparting pearls of deep wisdom on what to wear, how to score points with the opposite sex, the proper way to enjoy life, love, work, and play, and the many benefits of a handkerchief. Meanwhile, what they teach him is such things as how email works and how to turn on a laptop; it's a lopsided situation, where Ben may not be up to the modern times technologically, but when it comes to the rest of life, he pretty much has that life thing all figured out. He's an analog man in a digital world, with a point of view so retro that he immediately becomes the envy of these hipster Brooklynites who admire his so-out-he's-in ways of life.
Anne Hathaway may have her share of haters, but I've always found her to be a welcome presence in just about any film, and though much of the dialogue she is saddled with here is just downright embarrassing, the fact that she almost sells it for long spells is testament of her adeptness at playing in the realm of romance-tinged comedies. What's a bit of a mystery is that she is supposed to be playing a temperamentally difficult boss that no one wants to work for, and yet she seems far more benign than just about any boss that I've ever had, and she has created a great working environment for her employees who all seem to thrive under her direction, even if she tends to micromanage. Our first introduction to her is seeing her go well out of her way to keep her customers happy during a phone call in which only the most caring of business owners would ever make. Mostly, she just looks like she needs sleep and space, two things she never gets now that her business has nearly grown beyond her ability to manage anymore on her own., causing her to reluctantly look for a CEO with a good sense of business to take the company to the next level of success.
We get a very rambunctious supporting cast, with some especially fun roles for Rene Russo (Nightcrawler) as Fiona, a frisky masseuse who works for the company, though she goes from co--worker to full-on significant other seemingly overnight. She seems merely in the movie to provide Meyers the opportunity for a couple of raunchy laughs. There's also a too-long-in-coming role for TV's "Alice", Linda Lavin (The Back-Up Plan), who shows she still has good comedic chops as the spunky friend of Ben who wants to take things to another level. (Trivia: Lavin's former TV co-star Celia Weston (Knight and Day), who played Jolene on "Alice", also makes an appearance as one of the senior interns). The younger male cast is equally fun, though they all seem to be variations of the same type of sweet and funny Millennial office geeks.
Halfway through my screening of The Intern, if you'd have asked me what my thoughts were, I'd have likely remarked that it was fairly enjoyable, if slight, and pretty much the kind of genial movie I would expect from Meyers, who usually can give you a couple of nicely delivered scenes for every ham-fisted one A scene involving Ben telling Jules' driver to take a hike after catching him taking a swig of alcohol is particularly awful, but not as embarrassing to witness as Ben's coworkers staring at his crotch to see if he's getting a boner while he's getting a back massage from Fiona at his desk. Inept as these moments are, the movie still holds together due to the likeability of the performances and the frothy but on-point tone of Meyers' delivery.
Unfortunately, just after the halfway point of the film, we get a scene so ineptly handled that it actually manages to derail the film for a prolonged period. It's a scene that starts with Jules accidentally sending a frustrated email to her husband in which she calls her mother some nasty names, and then realizes she accidentally sent it to her mother. Despite not being able to remember 90% of the employees names she works with on a daily basis, somehow she knows that her mother will absolutely not read her email until 5:30pm, which leaves Ben the "good idea" to drive cross town with three other coworkers break into her mother's home and steal her computer. No, not delete the email -- steal her computer -- no one realizing that the email will still exist on any other device she has that draws from the same email account. (To the film's credit, they do the right thing in the end). The entire scene is played for comedy, but it's a madcap effort to bolster big laughs in the middle of a mild-mannered movie that to that point had been content to be merely pleasant, and smacks of desperation on Meyers part to placate audiences before delving into the rough and muddy waters she has planned ahead for the narrative.
From then on, every scene in the film smacks of the kind of clumsiness in tonality that Meyers usually is usually able to gloss over with good cheer, primarily because it asks us to start caring about characters that never feel rounded enough to see as anything other than typical office-comedy archetypes. There's an especially excruciating sub-story involving Jules' marriage difficulties that feels not only forced, but requires us to endure shallow and unconvincing attempts for characters to wrangle feelings and rationalize results in ways that betray how typical humans would respond to such life-altering events. Jules' husband Matt (Holm, The Interview) plays more of a role during these scenes, and it's then that we realize that he isn't a character, but rather a stay-at-home dad Ken Doll who Meyers is merely using as a plot device to give her frivolous comedy the semblance of weight and importance. However, matters of the heart are bypassed in order to try to drum up some saccharine emotional scenes where we get to see Hathaway unleash her patented waterworks through soapy first-world issues in the story no one really desires to endure watching. I wonder if Ben will hold my hair as I barf in the toilet from the nausea-inducing schmaltz much like he does for Jules in one truly terrible scene.
The Intern contains a scene in which Jules stops to admire her brownstone Brooklyn home and remark about how it looks like a place that makes you happy; if it were an illustration in a children's book, you'd want to turn the page to see what delights are inside. That statement, written by Meyers herself, is an insightful look at her modus operandi to storytelling: keep supplying images to make people happy, so much so that they want to see what else the film has in store to please their aesthetic desire for pleasant images. Unfortunately, for as delightful a confectionary as The Intern is to view from seeing good-looking people in great clothes living in well-decorated homes, you open the front door to see what's inside only to find a cluttered and mostly empty interior, and thinly sketched characters living within it that look like they'd rather be elsewhere.
©2015 Vince Leo