Workplace comedy cleverly upends cliché

Most of us think of interns as eager college students being shown the ropes by seasoned professionals. But The Intern turns that cliché on its head as an online fashion seller staffed by millennials creates an internship program for senior citizens.

Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) is a 70-year-old retired executive who is widowed, bored to tears, and looking to try something new. Accepted into a pilot program for “senior” interns, he finds himself in a contemporary e-tailing start-up, with no walls and few boundaries. This brave new world of 20-somethings working on laptops and riding bicycles in an office with staff masseuses couldn’t be further from Ben’s accustomed environs. But his work ethic, common sense, and lifetime of experience make him sought-after and popular among his much-younger peers, despite the age difference.

He is assigned to work with the company’s quirky but driven founder, Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), who thinks she can manage everything herself with no help from anyone (including her new intern) but is, in fact, overwhelmed by the unexpectedly explosive growth of her business. Despite her creative acumen and inhumanly long hours, the boss is finding herself struggling at the office, and also at home with her husband and (predictably precocious) daughter. Jules is being pressured by her investors to bring in a seasoned professional to help her run the company.

At this moment, you could be excused for thinking that you can map out the plot for the rest of this conventional movie comedy. Hollywood does have a penchant for comfortable tropes, especially in the hands of Nancy Meyers, a writer-director known for her crowd-pleasing female-centric oeuvre that includes It’s Complicated, Something’s Got to Give, What Women Want and The Holiday. All of these films can be emotionally satisfying, if more than a little pat. So it would be no surprise to see The Intern head down the same conventional path. For reasons that won’t be revealed here, you would be both right…and wrong. Meyers’ screenplay takes a few surprising turns that make this comic story less glib than some of her other movies.

Meyers’ story benefits immensely from the work of its two stars. De Niro dominated the screen in his Scorsese-shaped youth with complex, oft-disturbing portrayals of men on the edges of society and sometimes on the edge of sanity (think Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, The Godfather II, Raging Bull, etc., etc.). His second act, cinematically, has taken on more variety, but still allows the talented and charismatic actor to show his wide-ranging acting gifts. Hathaway holds her own in a part that could have been much more annoying in lesser hands. The rapport between the two, which actually acknowledges, even celebrates their age difference, carries The Intern through some of the weaker parts of the story. And Hathaway and De Niro are ably aided by a strong supporting cast that includes Anders Holm, Adam DeVine, Rene Russo, Celia Weston, and the adorable JoJo Kushner as Jules’ daughter, Paige.

Being a Nancy Meyers film, The Intern is burnished to a high gloss in all its technical aspects: cinematography, art and set direction, music, and editing. It is a well-made movie.

In all, The Intern is superficial but satisfying, the cinematic equivalent of the glossy online clothing business that Jules runs. Sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with objects that are pretty, pleasing, and make you happy, if only for a few hours.

Note: Last month’s review of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was written by Bob Yearick, not Mark Fields.

Mark Fields
Mark Fields has reviewed films for Out & About since October 2008. In addition, he has written O&A profiles of documentarian Harry Shearer and actress Aubrey Plaza. Mark also has written on the movies for several publications in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and his home state of Indiana, where he also served as on-air movie critic for Indianapolis’s public radio station. Mark has been an adjunct instructor of film history at Rowan University since 1998. A career arts administrator, he is the executive director of Wilmington’s Grand Opera House and now lives on Market Street. Mark spent the fastest 22 minutes of his life as an unsuccessful contestant on Jeopardy…sadly, there were no movie questions.