Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 10, 2016)
Two Oscar-winning actors team up for 2015’s The Intern. Widower Ben Whitaker (Robert De Niro) finds himself bored with retirement, so he pursues an unusual goal: to be an intern at a fresh, new Internet-based fashion company.
Despite his advanced age, Ben gets the gig and ends up as intern to Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), the founder/CEO of “About the Fit”. We follow their relationship as both learn and grow.
Nancy Meyers wrote and directed Intern, which means viewers know what to expect as they go into it. In the first decade of the 2000s, Meyers made her name as the go-to director for semi-mawkish movies about semi-empowered women. These occasionally connected with audiences and they established the Meyers Theme: strong women coping with life who interact with dynamic men.
Although she aims for a female audience, a look at Meyers’ films shows that she seems to need an “A”-list male actor to succeed. 2000’s What Women Want paired Helen Hunt with Mel Gibson, while 2003’s Something’s Gotta Give matched Diane Keaton with Jack Nicholson. Each made more than $100 million and became Meyers’ biggest hits.
In 2006, Meyers deviated from this pattern with The Holiday, as she used Jude Law and Jack Black as the male leads. While talented, neither musters the star power of Gibson or Nicholson, so perhaps it doesn’t surprise that The Holiday became Meyers’ lowest grossing film.
Meyers returned to the well with 2009’s It’s Complicated, though unlike Want and Give, it spread its focus across two primary males. Given that technique flopped with Holiday, it was a risk, but Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin boasted stronger star presence than Black and Law, and Complicated became another moderate hit.
Intern brings back a major male star, but it deviates from Meyers’ MO in one prominent way: it’s the first film of hers in which the main male is a) significantly older than the female star and b) not a love interest. While Intern offers romantic scenes, these don’t come between Ben and Jules, as they maintain a platonic relationship.
Does this change from the Meyers MO account for the film’s lack of box office success? Perhaps – or maybe audiences just didn’t connect to the characters or story.
What story we find, that is, as Intern lacks a true plot. The film focuses almost exclusively on character arcs, so it doesn’t tell much in the way of an actual narrative. Not that I mind that - Intern throws in a few plot points, but those exist mainly to serve the development of the Ben/Jules relationship, which remains the logical focus.
As much as I like De Niro and Hathaway, both seem vaguely miscast here. Hathaway excels at likeable “girl next door” roles, which leaves her out in the cold as the condescending, distant, flaky Jules – she seems like a poor fit for the role, at least until the movie inevitably humanizes her.
De Niro fares better as Ben, but he still comes across as the wrong choice. De Niro does best with parts where he gets to show his explosive side, whereas Ben seems so soft and gentle that De Niro fails to really mesh with the part. It’s like driving a Ferrari to the neighborhood 7-11 – why bother to get someone as charismatic and fiery as De Niro for such a low-key part?
Despite their absence of natural connection to their roles, Intern chugs along as a moderately entertaining piece – for a while, at least. The longer the film runs, the less convincing it becomes, unfortunately, as the tale takes a turn toward melodrama.
It’s those pesky plot points I mentioned. Perhaps because Intern lacks a concise narrative, it focuses on little character twists and developments to maintain our attention, and these tend to veer toward soap opera territory.
That doesn’t seem shocking, as virtually all Meyers’ films follow that kind of path. I find the movie’s depiction of Jules as borderline helpless to be more of a surprise, though. Meyers appears to want to present strong women, and on the surface, that’s Jules: she built a hugely successful business essentially on her own. But as depicted here, Jules is really a mess, and she needs the confident older man represented by Ben to play Fairy Godmother and rescue her.
Make no mistake: of the two leads, only Jules displays an actual character arc. The Ben we see at the end of Intern differs exceedingly little from the one at the start. The movie shows how his wisdom/charm/experience work their magic on others, but Ben himself stays the same.
Which is fine, but I still think it seems awfully retrograde for a movie with a theoretical feminist bent to use a grandfatherly figure as the solution to life’s woes. Hey, I agree with some of the film’s themes – mainly when it pokes fun at Millennials, as those kids really need to get off my lawn – but I find the way it depicts its lead female as an emotional mess who needs guidance from a strong male to be more than a little odd.
Even without thematic issues, The Intern remains a mediocre film. Miscast though they may be, its lead actors boast enough charm to carry us, but the end result lacks the wit, wisdom or insight to become more than a mild entertainment.