Film and TV

The Intern Works Hard to Be With It, but De Niro's Hardly Working

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 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. What’s harder to buy is Meyers’s characterization of older people — specifically De Niro’s Ben, who spent some forty years as a manager of a company that, in the olden days, printed phone books, and who has, at age seventy, 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.

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 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). 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 De Niro 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 that serve up the main ingredient, but without the subtler, more probing notes. 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. Meyers doesn’t so much tell a story as lead a team-building exercise.
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Stephanie Zacharek was the principal film critic at the Village Voice from 2013 to 2015. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and of the National Society of Film Critics. In 2015 Zacharek was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. Her work also appeared in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly.