"There's a hole in my life and I need to fill it. Soon." Widowed for three and a half years, retired 70-year-old businessman Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) is looking for a new challenge and purpose in life. His opening voiceover in "The Intern," spelling out his feelings in a trite, on-the-nose manner, does not bode well for writer-director Nancy Meyers' (2009's "It's Complicated
") screenplay. Fortunately, Ben's unnecessary narration is tossed aside soon after as the writing finds its footing and the story reveals itself to be about far more complicated and interesting adult subjects than the standard romance it could have become. Brightened by Robert De Niro (2012's "Silver Linings Playbook
") and Anne Hathaway's (2014's "Interstellar
") surprisingly perfect pairing, "The Intern" is a poignant, character-based comedy about professional passion, the struggle to retain a healthy work-life balance, and how the unlikeliest of friendships can sometimes become the most meaningful.
Having grown up in an era far removed from the technology-obsessed 21st century, Ben Whittaker is trying his hardest to keep up with the times. When he answers a flyer advertising a 65-and-over senior internship at booming Brooklyn-based online fashion retailer About the Fit, he is pleased to be chosen for the temporary position. Paired with workaholic company founder Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway)a guarded Type-A personality begrudgingly participating in office manager Cameron's (Andrew Rannells) outreach programBen aims to break down his boss' defenses by proving his age and background are assets rather than detriments. Jules has a lot on her plate, juggling family life with stay-at-home husband Matt (Anders Holm) and young daughter Paige (JoJo Kushner) while dealing with pressures to hire a CEO for the business, but it is her burgeoning working relationship and growing friendship with Ben that might be key in helping her to figure out exactly what she wants for her future.
"The Intern" is a photographically unblemished workplace slice-of-life with starry A-list leads and a point-of-view at once provocatively traditional and progressive. This kind of story, observantly focusing on the strictly platonic bond between two people forty years apart in age but exactly whom each other needs, is not often seen in modern studio-produced features. Without the typical "will-they-or-won't-they?" romantic tension hanging in the air, writer-director Nancy Meyers is free to explore different, no less relevant, avenues for these characters. There are points in the film's second half where Ben's role becomes that of an inadvertent savior to those around himin addition to giving advice and listening to Jules, he also plays a part in getting assistant Becky (Christina Scherer) the acknowledgment she deserves and offering much younger intern Davis (Zack Pearlman) a roof to sleep underbut the more one considers what his goals truly were at the start, the more the progression of his character seems ideally apropos.
For Jules, who has seen her tiny upstart business blow up over the last eighteen months into a fashion-forward force, she fears that the minute she stops working the floor might drop out on what she's built. She wants to spend more time with her family, to make her daughter guacamole for a school function and to have grown-up conversation with her husband, but she is also genuinely fulfilled by her profession. She additionally recognizes that Matt sacrificed his own job to stay home with Paige so she could run her business, which makes it all the more difficult to reconcile a painful betrayal she uncovers about him. Jules is hurt and angry, but she is not ready to give up on her marriage. Some staunch feminist audience members are destined to question one crucial decision she makes near the end, but consider that Jules is the one who retains control of the situation throughout without compromising her ambition. The tough choices she makes, whether they pay off for her in the long run or not, are the right ones for her in the here and now. In real life, significant, loving long-term relationships are never painted strictly in black and white shades, and the fact that this picture acknowledges this complex gray area and resolves on an unexpected, potentially unpopular note rings true.
As a guy who has witnessed his life's work go the way of the dinosaurshe worked for years as the VP of a telephone book manufacturerRobert De Niro has rarely, if ever, been so disarming onscreen. His Ben is a loveable teddy bear, "a man's man made of mush" who comes to care for and admire Jules' dedication and strength. He sees his internship as a chance to prove that his retirement does not mean he is through contributing to the world, a notion movingly portrayed by De Niro as more is learned about his past career and the loss of his beloved wife.
As Jules, Anne Hathaway has the more challenging role. Laser-focused but a little stubborn and standoffish when we first meet her, Jules confesses later on that she is a private person who has difficulty allowing others into her orbit. A woman of many facets beyond these initial observations, she is also secretly rattled with insecurities, fearful she is neglecting her family but so in love with her career that she isn't sure she wants to give up any of her responsibilities. As Ben asks her, why should she feel the need to choose one over the other? With Jules' frosty exterior warming as she begins to take control of all facets of her life, Hathaway is seemingly immune to delivering a single false note in her lovely, emotionally open performance. The ingratiating supporting cast includes Rene Russo (2013's "Thor: The Dark World
") as in-house masseuse (and Ben's possible love interest) Fiona; Anders Holm (TV's "Workaholics") as Jules' husband Matt; Andrew Rannells (2012's "Bachelorette
") as close colleague Cameron; Zack Pearlman (2010's "The Virginity Hit
") as younger intern Davis, and very funny newcomer Christina Scherer as Jules' increasingly harried assistant Becky.
A softer but immensely winning variation on 2006's "The Devil Wears Prada
" (with Anne graduating from intern to boss), "The Intern" gains much of its mileage purely from the chemistry between De Niro's Ben and Hathaway's Jules. Watching these two actors playing off each other and forming such a touching connection is more than enough incentive to overlook a few underused performers (e.g., the usually exquisite Celia Weston as a fellow senior intern) and a couple strained plot divergences (as when Ben and a group of coworkers sneak into Jules' mom's house to delete a damning email she accidentally sent her). Writer-director Nancy Meyers doesn't disappoint with the sleek, ultra-modern look of her surroundings; the filmmaker never met an Architectural Digest
design she didn't want to emulate for the big screen, her characters living and working in upscale dwellings of impeccably (and some might say antiseptically) decorated perfection. At least here, because these are successful businesspeople, their upscale New York brownstones and offices make sense. The dream of "having it all" is an unrealistic one to attain, but it is a universal aim which we as humans constantly strive to achieve. "The Intern" broaches this topic with a fair-minded, identifiable empathy, paying attention to its characters without judging them.