Writer-director Nancy Meyers has scored a number of commercial successes (including It’s Complicated and Something’s Gotta Give) by going against the grain and making movies centered on women and aimed at older audiences. These films have not always fared as well with critics as with audiences, and you can expect the same divided response to her latest feel-good comedy, The Intern. Box office should be healthy, even though the movie offers more frustrations than rewards to discerning viewers of any age or gender.
On the plus side, the movie benefits from the casting of Robert De Niro and especially Anne Hathaway. And the premise has possibilities. Hathaway plays Jules Ostin, a high-powered executive at a new fashion website, and De Niro is Ben, a senior intern hired to work for her after he rejects the idea of retirement. Fortunately, there is no hint of romance between the two characters; it’s more of a friendship and professional relationship, which turns out to benefit both of them.
So far, so good, and the supporting cast is also appealing, even if some of their roles are very thinly written. But there’s a vacuum at the center of the film that becomes increasingly problematic: Jules is at first reluctant to take on Ben as her intern, but she quickly realizes his value, so there isn’t a lot of conflict to enliven this central relationship.
This film bears a resemblance to Baby Boom, a 1987 film co-written by Meyers and her former partner, Charles Shyer. In that picture, Diane Keaton was a high-flying executive forced to re-examine her priorities when she inherits a baby. But the movie was a lot funnier and sharper. One of its strengths was that Keaton played a more flawed character than the talented and vibrant Jules. In addition, Keaton’s character had antagonists in a suspicious boss (Sam Wanamaker) and a sneaky co-worker (James Spader — who else?). In The Intern, Hathaway’s Jules doesn’t really have anyone trying to challenge or undermine her, and that means drama is often shortchanged.
This film proves how political correctness can damage a movie. Baby Boom made the point that a demanding career can hurt the personal lives of women as well as men. But in The Intern, Jules has a stay-at-home husband and an adorable daughter in addition to a stimulating career. It’s all a little too perfect. There is one surprise twist in the third act that suggests her life may not be as ideal as she thinks. But even this stumbling block is resolved much too quickly and neatly. The whole movie is way too tepid to scintillate.
Even the humor is a bit antiseptic. The funniest scene — in which Ben and three of the other staff members break into the home of Jules’ mother to delete a message that Jules sent by mistake — is basically an aside that has little to do with the film’s central storyline.
Given the vacuity of the script, it must be admitted that Hathaway achieves something of a triumph. She’s always engaging and keeps the character on a human rather than superhuman scale. De Niro has demonstrated his flair for comedy in such films as Meet the Parents, Analyze This, and The King of Comedy, but this role is too constricted to allow him to break free. He’s been given a romantic interest in Rene Russo (wonderful, as always), who’s a more age-appropriate mate than Hathaway. She is still a decade younger than De Niro, however, and undeniably glamorous. It’s interesting that the film rejects the idea that Ben might have a romance with a woman his own age. When such a character appears in the person of Linda Lavin, she comes across as some kind of gorgon and sends him fleeing in horror.
All of Meyers’ movies are technically polished. In this case the sets are cleverly designed by Kristi Zea, while the music by Theodore Shapiro is gratingly schmaltzy. In the end, an overdose of blandness sinks this middling star vehicle.
Cast: Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo, Adam Devine, Anders Holm, Andrew Rannells, Linda Lavin
Director-screenwriter: Nancy Meyers
Producers: Nancy Meyers, Suzanne Farwell
Executive producer: Celia Costas
Director of photography: Stephen Goldblatt
Production designer: Kristi Zea
Costume designer: Jacqueline Demeterio
Editor: Robert Leighton
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Rated PG-13, 121 minutes