In Nancy Meyer’s new film, Robert De Niro is a 70-year-old intern in the on-line company run by Anne Hathaway, where selling clothing is secondary to handing out familiar advice
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Robert De Niro, Rene Russo
Directed by: Nancy Meyers
Running time: 121 minutes
Rating: 2½ stars out of 5
By Jay Stone
There’s a lot less going on in The Intern — the story of an old guy who goes to work for one of those fancy new e-commerce places, whatever that is — than meets the eye, or the funny bone. It’s a story of a woman who wants it all, and the old-fashioned man whose sage advice helps her get most of it. It’s also the story of some gorgeously decorated homes in Brooklyn.
That’s one of the trademarks of writer-director Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give, What Women Want), a filmmaker who populates her movies with Issues walking around like people, albeit beautifully dressed and with great kitchens. Nothing seems quite genuine, but you recognize the general problems.
The characters in The Intern are Ben (Robert De Niro), a 70-year-old retired widower, and Jules (Anne Hathaway), the frantically successful founder and president of a company that sells clothes on-line. The company has started a program for over-aged interns and Ben, who is bored with his tai chi classes and Mandarin lessons (“There’s a hole in my life. I need to fill it”) applies and gets it. He’s the former president of a company that printed telephone books — the buggy-whip manufacturer of the computer age — but Jules is too much of a micro-manager to give him anything to do.
So Ben gets dressed every day in a suit and tie — he has them by the closetful — never forgetting his handkerchief, which becomes the emblem of the older gentleman, the person who not only shaves every day but also wears a shirt that is tucked in. He spends his days doing nothing in the converted Brooklyn warehouse where Jules rides around on a bicycle, taking on far too much and worrying about how her life is unraveling.
Eventually, of course, Ben becomes indispensible: he does this by cleaning off a messy desk that Jules somehow can’t bring herself arrange, or to have arranged. He becomes her driver, her friend, and even something of an unofficial uncle to her family, a chinless stay-at-home husband Matt (Anders Holm), who fills his time baking Play-Doh pies with his daughter Paige (JoJo Kushner), whose precocious adorability sets your teeth on edge from the first frame. Jules is a workaholic, but you have some sympathy: anything to avoid spending one more minute with these people.
The Intern is supposed to be about Jules’ many dilemmas — she’s also been told to hire a CEO to help with the many problems of the wildly successful start-up — but mostly it provides a lovely tour of an idealized Brooklyn and an idealized message about how the young need the voice of experience.
Jules is all sublimated fears, a woman who is crying out for a father figure. This makes Hathaway, who has the biggest smile since Julia Roberts, an ideal heroine: she is a fawn-like performer who needs to keep her doe-eyes lidded lest they engulf the entire cast. Like Fantine, Jules is someone who dreamed a dream, and Hathaway can barely keep her anxieties under control.
Ben, meanwhile, is the calm voice of reason; too calm, perhaps. Those who grew up in the age where De Niro made a living whacking people in Martin Scorsese movies have come to terms with his late-career conversion to light comedy: the flat line of his smile, the way he squinches up his face as if he just smelled (or, frequently, said) something distasteful.
There’s even a scene in The Intern when he talks to the mirror, just like Travis Bickle, except this time he’s trying to make sure he’s blinking enough. Jules doesn’t trust people who don’t blink enough, one of those only-in-the-movies tics that have helped Nancy Meyer films pass the $1-billion mark in box office returns. People just eat this stuff up.
Nevertheless, there’s not much to Ben. De Niro keeps a tight lid on his performance — perhaps he’s worried about spooking Hathaway — and as a result he’s a closed book: a man with a handkerchief, which is important (it turns out) so the gentleman can offer it to the lady when she cries.
There’s lots of that in The Intern, because having it all is an emotional journey. The retired guy, meanwhile, is having the time of his life: not only is he beautifully dressed but people listen to him and like him, and he even gets to canoodle with Rene Russo, in a small part as the company masseuse. Beats tai chi, eh Ben?
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