Some veteran filmmakers try to capture the younger generation and fail to get it right, coming up with characters and faux with-it dialogue that invite lots of "Oh, Mom!" eye-rolling. That's not the problem with writer-director Nancy Meyers's The Intern, in which retiree Robert De Niro finds meaning in life — and brings lots of twinkly-gruff inspiration to others — by taking an internship at a Brooklyn-based online clothing company run by ambitious yet dippy businesswoman Anne Hathaway.
It's easy enough to live with Meyers's characterization of young professional Brooklynites — the men in baggy tees topped with plaid shirts that substitute for superhero capes, the women in short, peppy skirts and flats — all camped out in a massive Red Hook office space expensively remodeled to look like an old printing press. (Because guess what? It used to be one.) What's harder to buy is Meyers's characterization of older people — specifically De Niro's Ben, who spent some 40 years as a manager of a company that, in olden days, printed phone books and who has, at age 70, somehow amassed enough wealth for a cozy New York retirement in which he never has to think about money at all. In fact, the only thing he has to worry about is boredom. From my lips to God's ears! Please let this be me in twenty years.
Wanting more out of life than this highly fictional, super-chill retiree experience, Ben applies for — and gets — a "senior" internship at the crazily successful company founded by go-getter Jules (Hathaway). She's the kind of boss who's glad to do stuff like take a turn at manning the customer service desk, and she rides around the cavernous office space, adorably, on a bicycle. No wonder her employees love to love-hate her.
Ben quickly makes himself indispensable, doling out sensible advice, business-y and otherwise, to the young'uns. He also wears a suit, which they love — in one of the movie's best scenes, he gives style tips to a young worker (Peter Vack) who's nervous when he discovers he might be hand-delivering an order to Jay Z. At first Jules is wary of Ben — he's too "observant," she tells her second-in-command (Andrew Rannells) via youth's communication medium of choice, the text message. (Meyers! So with it.) She's also feeling vulnerable because her investors are pushing her to hire an actual, experienced CEO. As if that weren't enough, her seemingly awesome but also undeniably emasculated stay-at-home-dad husband (Anders Holm) may not be staying at home as much as she thinks.
There's a lot going on in The Intern, but all you have to know, really, is that Ben is rock-solid and Jules is a winsome puddle of insecurity and awesomeness. It's astonishing to realize that DeNiro is just as capable as any other actor of slouching through a film like a lump of mold making its way down a tree limb. It's as if he's trying to keep all traces of actual personality or verve under wraps.
De Niro's lifelessness may not really be his fault. Meyers has built a career out of making zeitgeist-straddling movies (Something's Gotta Give, What Women Want) that, like Winston Churchill with his martini, merely bow in the direction of France instead of adding actual vermouth: She serves up the promised main ingredient, but the subtler, more probing notes are always missing. The Intern makes a show of digging into of-the-moment issues: the idea of women in positions of power being resented by their partners, their friends, everybody; the need for "older" people — who, today, are younger than ever — to feel needed and wanted in society. But the spongy subtext of this and every Meyers movie is "We're being serious, but we're also being FUN!" No viewer must ever be made to think too much, feel too much or be left out. She doesn't so much tell a story as lead a team-building exercise.
Hathaway, unfortunately, fits right into the plan. One minute Jules is the upbeat, fireball company owner: She can bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan! But apparently, in the context of her achievements, her husband sometimes forgets he's a man — or her man, that is. (Meyers, to her credit, doesn't blame Jules for his waywardness, but hubby is so agreeably bland at home that it's almost a relief to learn he actually has a sex drive.)
When the truth hits Jules, the Fantine tears start spilling. Hathaway can be a lovely screen presence, but more directors need to rein in the too-muchness of her. She has the long-legged gait, and the glinty saucer eyes, of a cartoon deer — but with all those nerve endings so close to the surface, she needs to be soothed into laughing things off, not startling at every noise in the forest. At one point Ben, having become Jules's de facto personal driver, drops her at her gorgeous yet aggressively humble Park Slope brownstone, long after dark, where her husband and cheerful moppet of a daughter await. "I love this house," she says. "It just looks happy to me."
It's happy, all right — for the record, probably about $3.8 million worth of happy. But still, Jules has her problems, just like you and me, and in this moment she's so overcome with wonder at her sweet little spot of real estate that it's a marvel the waterworks don't start spurting right then and there. She loves her life, but it's hard. Because whose isn't? The Intern has its finger on the pulse of young and old today. The heartbeat is the thing it fails to detect.