2015 will go down as the year movies finally cashed in on old people. From Woman in Gold to A Walk in the Woods to Grandma to I’ll See You in My Dreams, folks over 60 were front and center in many of this year’s top releases. Generally speaking, all the depictions are flattering (old people still have sex! they like to discover new things! they have hard-earned wisdom to dispense!), but no film flatters old people—old men in particular—quite like Nancy Meyers’s The Intern.
Of course, we’re not just talking about any old man. Robert De Niro himself plays the retired and recently widowed Ben Whittaker, a Brooklynite who is looking for something to do with his free time. He travels, he does tai chi in the park, he visits his out-of-town grandchildren, he puts on a coat and tie and hangs out at the neighborhood Starbucks—but he feels rudderless. So when he sees that a local retail startup called “About the Fit” has a new program to bring in senior citizen interns, he jumps at the chance. He’s hired and immediately assigned to the company’s young founder, Jules (Anne Hathaway), a Type A sort who is so perfectionist and impatient, she rides around the warehouse-like office space on a bicycle to save time. At first, Jules doesn’t cotton to this arrangement—she doesn’t think she needs an intern and finds Ben’s extreme conscientiousness and keen observational skills disconcerting. Eventually, she comes to rely on him and later, they become close friends. And why wouldn’t they? Ben, in the film’s world, is basically perfect. Smart, decent, wise, evolved—he’s what the film calls a “real man”.
With his suits, pocket squares, and briefcase, Ben is contrasted with Jules’s young male staff, who are more the untucked tee-shirt and jeans types. “How, in one generation have men gone from guys like Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford to…?” Jules says, regarding her slovenly employees in dismay. (The inside joke is that De Niro himself could be added to that list.) But Ben isn’t just a sartorial champ. He’s a fount of wisdom. He gives life-coachy advice to everyone, not just Jules, who is struggling in her marriage to reluctant stay-at-home-dad Matt (Anders Holm) and being pressured by her board to hire a CEO, but to those young male staffers, including Jason (Pitch Perfect’s Adam DeVine), who’s having girl troubles. As for his own love life? Ben is fending off the advances of a pushy lady from the neighborhood (Linda Lavin) while starting a new romance with the company’s sexy in-house masseuse, Fiona (Rene Russo). Unlike the fumbling boys in the office, who text apologies with frowny-face emojis to women they’ve wronged, Ben goes after what he wants directly. When Fiona gives him her business card, he calls the next day to ask her out.
What’s confusing about the film, is that, despite its nostalgia for “real men”, it’s very explicitly feminist, too. Jules second guesses how much time she spends away from her husband and her adorable daughter, but it’s Ben who encourages her to follow her ambitions, be proud of her accomplishments, and not feel guilty for her commitment to her work. At the same time, Ben tells the boys in the office to carry a handkerchief at all times, in case they need to wipe a woman’s tears. You see? Confusing!
Its misplaced nostalgia for these unicorn-like real men notwithstanding, The Intern goes down easily. Nancy Meyers is nothing if not a pro and, as always, she gives us well-appointed cinematic comfort food. On Twitter, I fretted that Meyers was wasting her penchant for aspirational living spaces (kitchens in particular) by setting the film in an office—but fear not, there are enough beautiful butcher block tables to go around (and Ben’s GQ-worthy closet is to die for). Hathaway and De Niro have a nice on-screen chemistry, although it pains me to think that a whole generation of film goers will now think of De Niro as the warm and fuzzy Ben. (The film even has a call-out to the “You talkin’ to me?” scene in Taxi Driver, except instead of taunting the mirror, he’s adorably practicing his facial expressions to impress Jules. The horror.)
Ultimately, very little happens in The Intern—there’s a minor heist to the suburbs to delete a rogue email, a trip to San Francisco, a dead-end bit involving a young intern (Zack Pearlman) who crashes at Ben’s house, several scenes where Ben drives Jules around New York. All of this is undeniably pleasant, although not much else. Still, the film’s slightly mixed up message doesn’t detract from its entertainment value. It’s the kind of compulsively watchable film you’ll be helpless to resist when it shows up on cable TV. And if Nancy Meyers is a feminist who also longs for the days of a chivalrous man in a tucked in shirt? Many of the film’s target audience will undoubtedly agree.