Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) is a 70-year-old widower of three years and has done all he can with his downtime. Long since retired and with a lot of time on his hands, Ben looks to dip his toes back into the workforce by answering the call for a senior-citizen-aged internship at an internet fashion start-up run by Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). Spread too thin and trying to maintain control over her corporation (and her marriage and relationship to her daughter), Jules initially sees her new personal assistant as a waste of time and energy, but quickly the pair bond over mutual respect for one another and a shared work ethic.
Far better than it probably has any right to be (and light years better than its dreadful marketing campaign), The Intern hits like a breath of fresh air in spite of some pretty obvious faults. Although the latest film from writer and director Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give, The Holiday) still includes a wealth of expository dialogue that passes for character development, convenient twists, jokes about bipolar disorder, erections during massages, and old people trying to turn laptops on, it’s far better to have a clichéd crowd pleaser with a fresh new approach and some interesting ideas than a simple rehash of ideas that have been run into the ground.
Meyers plays with audience expectations wonderfully, foreshadowing what cynical viewers will think are obvious and pat conclusions and subverting them deftly at every turn. There’s no forced May–December romantic connections here (Jules is unhappily married, but Ben gets paired with an age-appropriate masseuse, played by Rene Russo). The old guy doesn’t tell the young gun anything she doesn’t already know. The young girl doesn’t tell the old guy that he needs to get back into the world of the living. This isn’t a surrogate father-daughter relationship. The Intern very pleasingly becomes a story about friendship in its purest (and unquestionably, most feminist) form: a relationship built upon mutual admiration and respect. It’s a film with a zero-tolerance policy for misogyny or ageism. These are strong-willed people on an even playing field, each seeing a tremendous amount of worth in the other without saying “you go, girl” or “you’re only as old as you feel.” It’s refreshingly bullshit free in this respect.
There’s also something really interesting going on in the margins of this studio picture. Meyers seems to suggest that baby boomers and Gen-X-ers have no clue what’s actually happening in the world, preferring to live in a bubble while others fix their messes. The older generation (those who understand the value of hard work) and millennials (those who have to work multiple jobs and essentially live only to work) are the heroes, while everyone from the 40–60 age range remains either absent or cripplingly entitled. It’s a refreshing perspective, and one that’s far truer and more astute than I think the target audience of the film will likely realize. It’s a perfect melding of old school and new school that talks down to neither.
The chemistry between Hathaway and De Niro is effortless. It feels like watching people becoming friends instead of two actors tap dancing with one another. It’s almost unquestionably De Niro’s most genteel, least showy performance, and the actor seems to absolutely relish playing a likeable everyman. It might actually be some of his best work, and Hathaway gives him a great counterpoint. She’s a strong woman at her breaking point, but she isn’t helpless. She’s just understandably stressed, and Ben only responds with exactly whatever his boss needs in the moment, nothing more and nothing less.
The tires on the vehicle start to lose air around the start of the third act, though, with some side characters and developments becoming forgotten about, and Jules’s marital problems taking centre stage, but everything gets resolved in the most logical, least annoying ways possible, so it’s ultimately easy to excuse any late wonkiness. Even if the final act was terrible, it still would have gotten a pass on the charm it earns alone.