I want to preface this review with a simple declaration: The Intern, Robert De Niro‘s big film from 2015, is not a travesty. This isn’t a Dirty Grandpa, nor is it a Heist, Killing Season or The Big Wedding. Instead, The Intern is probably closest to De Niro’s 2009 vehicle, Everybody’s Fine. Like that earlier film, Nancy Meyers‘ latest is a harmless, inoffensive piece of work, which features De Niro respectably ensconced in grandpa mode.
This is both good and bad. While The Intern has none of egotism evident in late-period De Niro films like 2008’s Righteous Kill, it also is devoid of the riveting unpredictability seen in the actor’s best work from the 2010s, Silver Linings Playbook. Instead, The Intern is a straight-edge, vanilla and completely mainstream piece of work. It doesn’t make many wrong moves, but it’s also so completely gutless that it is frequently dull. As mentioned above, the film functions as a sort of companion piece to Everybody’s Fine, which if watched together would probably form the most boring family movie night of all time.
In The Intern, Robert De Niro plays an old dude named Ben Whittaker, a 70-ish widower and retiree. After a few years of retirement, Ben decides that he wants to get back in the game. He applies for an outlandish-sounding senior internship program, which brings him to an e-commerce fashion business called About the Fit and into the orbit of Anne Hathaway’s Jules Ostin, the company’s stressed-out founder.
Jules initially looks at the old codger as little more than a joke that she must tolerate. Things change after Ben starts to prove his worth at the company. Hathaway’s Jules begins to rely heavily on the old-timer, using him for emotional support as she attempts to balance work and family life. Although the stakes are kept relatively low throughout this particular story, their friendship becomes essential towards its conclusion, which features Jules making critical decisions in both her personal and professional life.
There is something admirable in the basic premise of The Intern. Meyers has always made spaces for older actors in her films, in addition to giving her female characters a platform equal to her male ones. This particular film is even more special, as it contains a type of inter-generational relationship that is rarely seen. Both Hathaway and De Niro give strong performances in the film, marked by an easy chemistry. Always a skilled actress, Hathaway imbues Jules with an intriguing and flinty world-weariness, which is striking considering her character’s relatively young age.
De Niro also contributes a great deal to the film on his end. His Ben is a distinctive presence in The Intern, due to ever-present suits and classy albeit antiquated behavior. De Niro also gives Ben a unique physicality, the type of stately, respectful body language of a man from a different time. And seeing how Meyers stages much of the action within the hip, rehabbed offices of About a Fit, the Ben character feels even more unique and incongruent.
What’s missing is actual substance. De Niro is able to provide Ben with his surface-level attributes, yet it’s all bones and no meat. Meyers’ script doesn’t fill in any of the character’s gaps, aside from faint allusions to banal life experiences, like the fact that Ben was married and that he loved it.
Even worse, the character never feels exactly real, possessing all of the positives of the baby-boomer generation and none of its negatives. Not only is Ben wise, generous, encouraging and selfless, but he is also a self-professed feminist, and possesses an almost superhuman capacity for inclusion and acceptance. This is not meant to suggest that I consider all boomers to be bigots and regressive assholes, far from it. I only want to point out that Ben feels more like an idealized version of an older gentleman, rather than a flawed, flesh and blood human being. He is one of those characters who seems to only exist in films, a mixture of the classy chivalry of the boomers and the progressive enlightenment of the millennials.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a character who is as straight-edge as De Niro’s Ben. However, typically characters like this are much more difficult to make interesting. Meyers seems acutely aware of this, and although De Niro is the top-billed star in The Intern, it is actually Hathaway’s Jules which the film revolves around.
Ben actually functions more in a supporting role, amounting, in certain scenes, to little more than a pair of hands driving Jules’s car for her, or a wizened pair of shoulders on which she can cry. This is problematic because it deeply muddies the thematic crux of Meyers’ film, which postures as being a feminist text while remaining constrained by patriarchy. The director is clearly interested in championing Hathaway’s character, a powerful woman who owns her own company and dictates to many male subordinates. It proclaims that women like Jules deserve to have a great career without having to sacrifice their home lives. Despite this progressive attitude, the film is also simultaneously retrograde. De Niro’s Ben is shown slowly becoming Jules’s rock over the course of The Intern, a paternal, stabilizing force, on which she is entirely dependent.
Even tabling these troubling gender politics, The Intern isn’t exactly a successful or great film. Although crisply shot and fluidly paced, there isn’t much going on in terms of story. I don’t think the stakes have ever been lower in a Meyers’ film, with an overly chill vibe pervading much of the proceedings, aside from a silly vignette that occurs about halfway through the film (and doesn’t fit tonally). And, seeing how the film’s primary theme is generally incoherent, there isn’t much left to recommend about The Intern.