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There’s a brief moment in The Intern where the camera focuses on star Robert De Niro‘s weathered face for a good length as we watch the legendary actor stare back, his emotional gaze rimmed with a sorrow that we are not entirely meant to understand and will glean differently depending on how old the viewer might be. What’s remarkable about this little moment is how reminiscent it is of the best moment in De Niro’s Sleepers (1996) where he had another scene staring deeply into the camera. The man can speak much with no words, and here he again finds just the right tone to pull the audience straight into his pain.
That might seem like an odd way to start a review of this latest comedy from Nancy Meyers, but The Intern has a lot of depth and a few unexpected emotional moments that elevate this rather otherwise pedestrian story just enough to merit a recommendation. While it is populated with a number of stock characters and several terribly misguided plot points, the vibrant chemistry between De Niro and his co-star Anne Hathaway really make up for it with many shining moments.
Hathaway plays Jules Ostin, the CEO and founder of an e-commerce clothing company that in only 18 months has exploded into a major fashion player with international sales and an in-house staff of over 250 employees. She is intelligent, progressive, hard-working and runs her company with a human touch, if not a little detached from the day-to-day operations and names of those in her charge. She rides around her expansive office (a converted manufacturing warehouse that once printing telephone books) on a bicycle and even takes time to answer over-the-phone customer inquires. She’s married to Matt (Anders Holm), himself a once promising entrepreneur who gave it up to be a stay at home dad to their young daughter Paige (JoJo Kushner), who is the very definition of Hollywood movie cute-kid. Problem is, Matt is feeling left behind and has wandered off the marriage trail a bit, leaving Jules in a quandary about how to keep him invested in her and their family. One solution is to listen to what the company’s investors are suggesting: bring in an established CEO to run the business and further give the business legitimacy, thus freeing her up to spend more time with Matt.
Mixed up in all this is Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro), a 70-year-old widowed retiree who is looking to get back into life, filling the spaces of emptiness he is feeling now that he is alone. He has travel and joined senior’s clubs and participates in outdoor yoga, but misses the action of his 40-year career in, you guessed it, printing phone books at the manufacturing plant that now houses the e-commerce fashion company. Fortunately, About the Fit, Jules fashion business, has recently established a senior’s intern program, which is not for seniors in high school or college but actual senior citizens with work experience. He applies and gets the job, thinking he might end up helping in one of the lower departments but ends up assigned straight to Jules on his first day. The always observant, kindly, and humble Ben naturally becomes an office prize of sorts as his stories, passion, and guidance help more than just Jules, but many of those working alongside him.
Of course, none of that is a surprise. This is a comedy after all. Those office workers who fall under the geriatric’s spell are all broadly painted and fill their roles and speak their lines just as the cookie cutter recipe indicates, with one after the other offering zero depth but a few guffaws and occasional groans. They come and go throughout the story with just enough arc to introduce and then satisfy their minor predicaments, all growing from their exposure to Ben, one even hugging and telling him he loves him. By the end it fills like the film is completing a checklist as each character finishes their part in the movie. Worst of the bunch, and responsible for two wildly unexpected and horribly misplaced sexual sight gags, is the wonderful Rene Russo who is cast as the company masseuse and apparent love interest. It’s a tragedy that this fine actress is relegated to such a seamy role in a film that could have used her in such a far better way. Then there is an extended sequence involving an email and a break-in that is so out of context and so absurdly plotted and acted that is feels like it should be in another movie, eliciting only head scratches at the choice to include it. There’s also some silly outdated barbs at older people not being able to understand technology, which in this day and age is really unfair and honestly unforgivable. I know people in there eighties who are very accomplished at modern computer devices and the vocabulary associated with them and many twenty and thirty-somethings for whom the term “USB” is utterly unfamiliar. But that’s not all, though. The pacing and enormous dips and loops the film takes with emotions and tone make for an often frustrating experience.
That said, there is a lot to enjoy as well, especially, as mentioned, between De Niro and Hathaway who are wonderful throughout. Of note is a delightful moment when the two share a quiet time together after the office has closed and she learns a great deal about the older gentleman who has a wealth of knowledge and history worth considering. Hathaway handles this scene with great poise and creates a character that is richly layered and never one dimensional, which is what a role like this often amounts to. De Niro, too, is unlike anything we’ve seen before. Proper and professional, there is a bit of Rupert Pupkin buried in there, but he’s likable not because he’s so charming and kind but because he seems genuine and sincere, something that De Niro fully deserves credit for creating.
The best part is how the film steadfastly refuses to go where any other film in this genre most assuredly would have gone: sex and romance. While Ben is certainly fond of Jules and there is a moment in a hotel when the opportunity was readily available, just like how the far superior Lost in Translation handles it, it’s a non-issue and the moment becomes about something altogether more important. It is the most powerfully vulnerable moment in the film as Jules confesses a terrible insecurity and pain concerning her marriage. It’s some of Hathaway’s finest work. What’s also done right is how Jules is maintained as the strong female character she’s introduced as throughout. That gives her the freedom to be all things in this movie, and never weakens her when she needs to cry or has to be tough. It’s a commendable bit of writing.
The Intern could have spent more time in the editing room, trimming away a good twenty to thirty minutes off the more than two hours run time, losing much of the excess that truly spins this film away from greatness. What could have been a unique twist on the mentor film genre is instead muddled and soon to be lost in the shuffle but what should be remembered and hopefully talked about long after the show is over is the open-mindedness to our senior population that the premise dictates. That is the film’s real spirit and it embraces it with loving arms. That is job well done.