I admit that the marketing of The Intern made me want to wrap several cashmere sweaters around my head and hide away in a multimillion-dollar brownstone until the movie disappeared from theaters. The two trailers convinced me that this Nancy Meyers movie about a wealthy 70-year-old retiree who, in the least plausible premise of the year, takes a job as an intern for a thirtysomething female startup founder would be the cinematic equivalent of a garbage truck hurtling into a tanker of high-fructose corn syrup. The previews showed “Mr. Congeniality” Ben (Robert De Niro) hitting it off with his new co-workers, while ice queen Jules (Anne Hathaway) ignores underlings and bristles at criticism. The film’s tagline—“Experience never gets old”—created the impression that the plot would have Ben swooping in to rescue Jules from her own incompetence and ignorance by providing the kind of business expertise that only old white men in suits possess.
Reader, ignore the tone-deaf marketing campaign. The Intern is far more charming, and far savvier about gender politics, than the trailers led me to believe. That doesn’t mean it’s a great film by any means, nor does it honestly grapple with the questions about work-life balance that its characters are always having heart-to-hearts about. But nobody does visually pleasing, occasionally funny escapist entertainment about goodhearted rich people trying their best to do the right thing better than Nancy Meyers.
The Intern doesn’t have a plot so much as plots—its screenplay, also by Meyers, is a series of vignettes that would feel right at home on an ABC Family dramedy. We first meet Ben Whittaker, a retired executive who’s filled his days learning yoga, gardening, and Mandarin since his wife died, but misses the structure provided by work. When he sees a flier outside a Park Slope grocery store advertising a senior internship program at an online apparel store called About the Fit, he asks his 9-year-old grandson how to use a USB connector, records a video résumé, and sends it in. A mild-mannered, chivalrous go-getter with business experience, Ben naturally gets the job (along with a handful of other senior citizens who are shown once and then disappear).
About the Fit, we learn, has grown to 200 employees since it was founded by Jules Ostin 18 months ago; we’re told the company is experiencing growing pains, but it sure doesn’t look that way. The office space, a light-filled former factory, is furnished with rows of attractive, well-dressed young people, diligently examining fashion photos, writing code, and answering customer service calls. When something good happens—like the company getting an unprecedented 2,500 likes on an Instagram post—someone rings a bell and everyone applauds. There’s a sexy massage therapist named Fiona (Rene Russo) on staff to make sure no one gets too stressed-out. Jules often rides her bicycle from one end of the loft to the other to save time, but no one yells, snorts Adderall, or neglects his personal hygiene, even though they constantly talk about how sleep-deprived they are. About the Fit is an art director’s wet dream of a tech startup.
Jules, who’s assigned to supervise Ben, is initially wary and considers having him transferred to another department, but she soon comes to view him as indispensable. Ben’s cool head and old-school approach to life come in handy in a series of very low-stakes conflicts. Co-worker Jason (Workaholics’ Adam DeVine) accidentally slept with the roommate of the girl he likes; Ben persuades him to apologize to her in person, instead of via text and email. Ben notices Jules’ driver acting reckless, defuses the situation, and becomes her new chauffeur. Jules accidentally sends an email about how awful her mom is to her mom instead of her husband; Ben and his new work friends embark on a (genuinely funny) caper to delete the email from Jules’ mom’s computer before she sees it. Scenes in which Ben teaches the youngsters how to use a handkerchief, where to get a good briefcase, and why to tuck in their shirts risk romanticizing the era in which men were men—and indeed, Jules goes off on a brief drunken rant about how her generation of men act like immature boys—but it’s hard to take the movie’s nostalgia too seriously. After all, the immature boys who work at About the Fit are total mensches, even though they wear T-shirts and play video games.
The Intern’s central conflict, which simmers on the back burner for most of the movie, doesn’t really have much to do with Ben: It’s Jules’ dilemma. According to her colleague Cameron (an underutilized Andrew Rannells, whose character is never fully explained), the venture capitalists who backed About the Fit want Jules to consider bringing in an outside CEO to help the company grow and prevent Jules, and everyone else, from flaming out. Jules, who lives and breathes About the Fit—taking customer service calls, fine-tuning the site’s homepage, visiting the warehouse to make sure the clothes are folded beautifully before they’re shipped—doesn’t love the idea but promises to meet with a few candidates. She wants to do right not only by her investors and her employees, but also by her family, whom we meet halfway through the movie. Jules’ husband, Matt (Workaholics’ Anders Holm—who knew Nancy Meyers was such a Workaholics fan?) gave up his high-powered job to take care of their daughter, and Jules hopes that taking on a new CEO at work—even if that means relinquishing control of the company she built—will make it easier for her to spend time with her family.
Ben, who grows closer and closer to Jules and her family throughout the film, plays a supporting role as Jules tries to figure out if she can keep running her company and have the home life she wants. And Ben’s old-fashioned philosophy does not extend to Jules’ family life: He emphatically supports Jules’ right to Have It All. His role isn’t really that of a business mentor at all—sure, he knows how to read marketing reports, but he’s helpful to Jules primarily as a sounding board, and as a “you go, girl” cheerleader. If your personal fantasy has always been to see Robert De Niro say things like “I hate to be the feminist here, but you should be able to have a huge career and be who you are,” I’ve got good news.
There’s something about De Niro’s character—maybe the fact that he always says the right thing, embodies all the best traits of his generation, and yet holds all the correct beliefs about women in the workplace—that feels a little half-baked. Consider Ben a variation on the Magical Negro. Like most of Meyers’ movies, The Intern is too blindingly Caucasian to feature a black character who helps the white protagonist figure her life out. Instead, Ben is a Magical Senior, who exists fundamentally to help Jules learn what’s important in life. De Niro doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with Ben’s utter lack of negative qualities—you get the impression that Ben is withholding something, that there’s something whirring behind his kind eyes, but that might just be what happens when you ask a highly intelligent actor to play a two-dimensional role. Hathaway, on the other hand, is pretty much perfect as Jules. The actress, of course, gets a lot of flak for seeming too thirsty—for appearing to care too much about acting. But that’s exactly what’s needed for a character like Jules, who is highly driven, polished, and perfectionistic.
There’s a scene late in the film in which Jules invites Ben into her hotel room to talk about what’s weighing on her, and an anxiety I’d developed based on a shot of a lingering hug in the trailer returned. But the scene turned into a showcase of Jules’ emotional vulnerability, which Hathaway plays just right: She’s hurting so much that it doesn’t even occur to her (the way it does to Ben) that the situation might read as sexual. No one could accuse Meyers of realism—The Intern, like her other movies, is a modern-day fairy tale set inside a Pottery Barn catalog—but she’s smarter about sex, and about gender, than most comedy filmmakers. This deliberately uncomfortable moment highlights the fact that audiences—and people in general—still don’t quite know what to make of platonic friendships between men and women, especially older men and younger women. Neither, apparently, does The Intern’s marketing team.