The Intern is that quintessential Nancy Meyers film, so identifiable that it feels like it was made from a template. The cast is led by an aging legend, the story is a sweet and sugary fairy tale with sneaky satiric undertones, the humor is playfully bawdy, the images are smooth and pristine, the orchestral music swells with emotion, and everything is tied up with a bow at the end. A knowledgeable filmgoer could win a game of Name That Director in less than three scenes. One could imagine that we of the cynical film critic ilk would conclude a movie like this is redundant, just more of the same from the Nancy Meyers catalog. Then again, if a male filmmaker delivers a career’s worth of films with similar looks and themes, we call him an “auteur” and refer to his filmography as an “oeuvre.”
And that is why Nancy Meyers is so important to Hollywood. She is one of the very few woman directors who not only can get films made, but can make the films she wants to make, and willfully poke at the Hollywood age and gender gap along the way. After the passing of Nora Ephron, Meyers is really the last remaining pillar of Second Wave Hollywood Feminism, a role she seems more willing to embrace at this stage of her life and career, when she can also take up the cause of ageism. The Intern is a synthesis of Meyers’ ideals, a film with shared leads, each of whom is the embodiment of a trailblazing establishment-toppler. And, also true to the Meyers mold, it’s bright, funny, and altogether wonderful.
Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) is the intern of the film’s title, a retired widower who finds himself anxious to return to the workforce. He jumps at the opportunity to apply for a position as a “senior intern” at an upstart online fashion site, a position no doubt created as a token nod to the AARP crowd, but that doesn’t much matter to Ben, who wakes up early and dons business casual attire just to go to Starbucks every morning. Ben’s new position is a personal internship with the company’s founder, Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), who herself is fighting perception as a token. Having started the company from the ground up and shepherding it to incredible success, she is now facing shareholder pressure to bring in a seasoned CEO to “take some things off her plate,” i.e. siphon away some of her authority. Not surprisingly, all the candidates are men.
As a result, Jules is obstinate to the notion of an assistant, let alone one who embodies the old male guard that seems to be threatening what she’s built. Nevertheless, Ben works to prove himself, in ways both large and small, and eventually becomes not merely an underling but also a confidant for Jules, who is stretched so thin at work that she has no time for home, where her husband and daughter miss her presence. So the “intern,” true to form, becomes a jack of all trades – part assistant, part chauffer, part business analyst, and part father/grandfather. Through it all, De Niro and Hathaway develop surprising chemistry, with both Oscar winners delivering fabulous performances, and De Niro in particular giving us his best work, in his best role, in over a decade.
Meyers develops a tricky structure with her screenplay, for which there is a full three-act arc for Ben and Jules separately, and Ben and Jules as a team. That means this two-hour movie has a lot going on, from business-driven plot to septuagenarian romance to family strife and even a few goofy one-off set pieces (which are actually pretty hilarious). Some major plot points arrive too late and are resolved too easily to have the intended emotional impact, which stifles what is otherwise a sterling example of a great Hollywood comedy for grown-ups. It’s polished with a studio sheen, to be sure, but with a defiant spirit at its core and great performances at its center.
Just like any other film from the Nancy Meyers oeuvre.