Nancy Meyers wants you to know just how much she loathes the term “chick flick,” and with good reason. She’s had to deal with the condescending label time and again over her 35-year career as a writer, producer, and director, as though her work, though occasionally frothy and vanilla to a fault, could somehow only appeal to a single gender, or worse, that a female filmmaker should by inference cater to an exclusively female audience. So when Meyers’ latest career heroine, startup fashion entrepreneur Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), is reluctantly interviewing for a new CEO, she wastes no time in storming out of a meeting with a guy who’s had the nerve to call her business a “chick site.” Meyers has a point. This is 2015, and Jules is a successful business creator, not a lost princess in need of coddling. It’s odd, then, that The Intern approaches her work-life crisis from such a creaky narrative angle, resulting in a film that keeps the good stuff hidden behind a wall of broad jokes and telegraphed intergenerational moments.
Perhaps reaching for a saleable hook, Meyers’ sixth feature introduces Robert De Niro as Ben Whitaker, a retired, heart-of-gold New York widower whose need to stay active leads him to enroll in a “senior intern” program at Ostin’s company. The 70-year-old Whitaker, who spent 40 years working at a telephone book factory (either a poignant note on obsolescence or a cheeseball contrivance, your call), is a model of old-school behavior: he shows up to work in a tailored suit and carrying a “vintage” briefcase and actually has trouble finding the on-key for his computer, because hey, it’s not like those things haven’t existed for four decades or anything. Many of the film’s early scenes thusly groan with cringe-inducing humor as De Niro high-fives and fistbumps the “kids” in the office and looks vaguely lost among the Brooklyn warehouse in which his boss rides a bespoke bike and “cool” young Millennials ring rustic bells when Instagram “like” targets are reached. By the time Hathaway is showing De Niro how to set up one of those new-fangled Facebook things, The Intern has started to feel like it was written by your once-hip aunt who’d Googled one too many BuzzFeed lists in the writing process.
Yet even as the ham-fisted life-mentor/student relationship between De Niro and Hathaway endures, The Intern gradually relaxes its forced intergenerational grasping and gravitates toward the heart of its characters. It’s a sort of mild-mannered inverse of The Devils Wears Prada, in which Meryl Streep’s difficult fashion guru learned a life-work lesson from her naïve new assistant, played by Hathaway. Jules is no Miranda Priestley, but she’s tasked with similar obstacles: balancing a high-demand fashion enterprise with a possibly crumbling personal life. And by focusing in on Jules’ life crisis—can she juggle a young family, a distant husband, and the pressures of business?—The Intern finds its spiritual center.
Meyers deserves all due credit for crafting a female character and a gender relationship that has nothing to do with romance, where the character’s personal life is but one element of the larger picture—namely, her struggle to assert herself in the face of her investors insisting that she hire a (most likely male) CEO to run her own company on her behalf. As the story’s emotional fulcrum, De Niro and Hathaway have a lovely, low-key rapport, and the former’s passive fairy godmother routine might even be considered gently subversive: Meyers’ quiet emasculation of one of Hollywood’s legendary tough-talkers turns all of his weary tics inside out—“I don’t mean to sound like a feminist,” begins one of Whitaker’s pep talks, but he the thing is, he kind of does. (All this and there’s still room for a Taxi Driver gag.) A pivotal, charmingly played hotel room scene captures the moment these two souls cross paths on opposing trajectories, locating that tricky intersection of sap and the sublime in the way Golden Age of Hollywood films once did. De Niro’s avuncular mansplaining is tempered by the absolute femininity with which Meyers shoots her star, who keeps one foot on the floor when he’s on the bed like the Hays Code is still in effect, and later—ludicrously and brilliantly—curls up for a good cry over a Gene Kelly musical on TV. (As astutely noted elsewhere, De Niro also has more than a touch of Spencer Tracy about him here.)
The Intern percolates with this kind of sweetness, but there’s still an awkwardness to the film that prevents it from truly succeeding. The worst parts of are the most contrived, such as an embarrassing heist sequence in which the interns break into Jules’ mom’s house to head off a damaging email, or the broad-shot jokes about old people and technology. Meyers is in her element when the movie plays like classic narrative cinema, unafraid to go for the corny sentiment that she does with more conviction than the attempts at zeitgeist comedy. Better yet is when Meyers stands her ground on style. She gets in some well-needed digs at the man-boy slobbery of millennial dressing, as when Jules drunkenly laments how men went from being Harrison Ford and Jack Nicholson to a bunch of hoodie- and t-shirt clad perpetual children (Meyers’ own recent takedown of the horror that is contemporary male casual fashion is gold.) If only she’d stood her ground further and not pandered to the (perceived) differences between generations for superficial yuks. And the less said about Rene Russo’s undercooked in-house masseuse who serves as a romantic foil De Niro, the better.
There’s a great film somewhere in The Intern, and while the existing product is only partially successful, it makes for a far more fascinating excursion into female auteur cinema than its fluffy marketing campaign would lead you to expect. Just don’t call it a chick flick.