Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Intern

Director: Nancy Meyers
Starring: Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo, Anders Holm, Andrew Rannells, Adam DeVine, Zack Pearlman, Nat Wolff, Celia Weston, JoJo Kushner
Running Time: 121 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

The Intern reminds us just how much we take some of our biggest movie stars for granted. They're so omnipresent and overexposed in our culture it's easy to forget why we even cared about them to begin with. Sometimes it just takes them simply playing normal, everyday people to remember that some of them also happen to be great actors. Two such stars headline Nancy Meyers' latest, which is advertised as a harmless, fluffy workplace rom-com that's a reasonable enough excuse to kill two hours, for both younger and older audiences. That description is at least partially true, as it often is for many of Meyers' films. But there's really something to be said for doing it well, and The Intern manages to get all the little things right.  It's entirely pleasurable experience from beginning to end with very few problems and a plot that isn't so much surprising as it is insightful and easygoing. And it isn't all that unrealistic in terms of the central topic it deftly handles with the help of its co-leads, who are generations apart, but entirely on the same page when it comes to making this material click.

The timely script not only avoids talking down to audiences about topics like workplace gender politics, social media, stay-at-home dads, and the generation gap, but actually goes a step further in making intelligent observations about them. Few mainstream American comedies would actively avoid depicting a CEO of a major company (much less a female one) as a tyrant or an elderly retiree as anything other than a senile loon. This one does, finding Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway as charming and likable as they've recently been, with the former doing his most subdued work in years. Its two hours go down easily, as this delivers on nearly all its comedic and dramatic potential. 

Looking to escape the malaise of his retirement as a phone book company executive, seventy-year-old widower Ben Whittaker (De Niro) applies to a senior citizen internship program, with the hopes of briefly rejoining the workforce to positively contribute to society. He says as much in his YouTube video, which lands him an interview and eventual job with About The Fit, a Brooklyn-based e-commerce fashion startup founded by current CEO Jules Ostin (Hathaway), whose overnight success, but relative inexperience, is overwhelming her. When Ben is assigned to the Type A Jules, she begrudgingly takes him in, as her initial skepticism of this internship program (and seniors in general), begins to wane after realizing he's more than fully capable of handling a wide variety of tasks.

Charming the entire office with his winning personality and knowledge, Ben soon has a positive influence on Jules, whose marriage has been suffering since her husband Matt (Anders Holm) gave up his career to become a stay-at-home dad to their young daughter, Paige (JoJo Kushner). Crumbling under the pressures of running her company, she finds an unlikely friend and father figure in Ben, who finds he might also have a lot to learn from the younger generation.

Given its story structure and thematic content, this could still be considered your typical rom-com, though there's hardly any romance to speak of and most entries in that genre aren't typically this restrained. That's evident from the very first scene, in which Ben records a video resume you actually believe would get this clearly articulate senior through the door for an interview and land him the position in a heartbeat. While much of that credit goes to De Niro's firm grip on the material, he stills needs dialogue of substance to deliver and Meyers' script continually comes through on that front. It was inevitable we'd get jokes about Ben's cluelessness about current technology as he steps into a progressive, contemporary office filled with Millennials, but the movie doesn't dwell on it or make Ben the butt of the joke. Even social media is incorporated fairly well into the plot without hammering us over the head with it.

While we're frequently laughing with Ben rather than at him, it's easy to imagine a lesser script doing the opposite, instead depicting him as an old blowhard set in his stubborn ways. If anything, he's as open to learning new things as his far younger co-workers are to learning from him. They don't go for easy Millennial jokes either, as all the employees at this company seem fairly competent rather than coming across as extras in an SNL skit skewering young people.

Whether it's Father of the Bride or It's Complicated, Meyers' films are frequently criticized for living in fantasy land, enveloping its audience in a saccharine Hollywood wish-fulfillment. To an extent that's true, but here's the rare case where her depiction is actually closer to reality than a snarkier, more negative portrayal would be. And it's also nice to see a comedy where characters aren't living in impossibly expensive New York City apartments because it looks nice on camera, but because their salaries and income levels dictate that they should.

If the portrayal of Ben is smart, the depiction of Jules may be even wiser. Removing the fact she's a female CEO and the whole stay-at-home-dad issue, imagine how tempting it must have been to write this character as a total bitch for comedy and conflict. And with Hathaway in the role the temptation was likely far greater to create a kind of reverse Devil Wears Prada, this time sending up media and public perception of the actress. But Meyers is too clever for that.

By making Jules an insecure CEO full of self-doubt that she can even handle this job, it makes her eventual bond with Ben mean more because his advice becomes invaluable. And just look at Jules' husband. They actually had the guts to cast some unknown, normal looking hipster guy in the role opposite Hathaway. The second we see them together something seems off. Why? Because it's realistic. And he seems like just the kind of person who would be thrown for a loop when Jules' career ascension completely alters their lives.

There's a romantic subplot involving Ben and the company masseuse (played by Rene Russo) that's kind of a throwaway until you start to realize that if the roles were reversed and Russo's character were a man, her behavior could result in termination or worse. Did the movie intentionally do this as a sly commentary on gender politics? Of course not. But it's there. And as far as third act complications go, the one involving Jules is actually pretty good, taking that gender reversal theme as far as it goes. The ending is a bit tidy, but it isn't often that a romantic comedy goes into the final stretch with a woman holding as many cards as Jules does here.

At this point, Hathaway could convincingly play any occupation and as this uncertain CEO, she walks a fine line between being a little bit prickly and demanding, while almost being entirely too good-hearted a person to succeed in the position she's been put in. Making matters more interesting is that the person who put her there was herself, sometimes much to her own disbelief. Hathaway effectively draws a contrast in how Jules behaves at work and at home, startling for both its similarities and differences. And it's safe to say if the character was written as one-dimensionally as the trailers implied, she would have found a way to make that work just as well.

De Niro is pretty much a revelation here. "Subtle" isn't exactly a word that jumps to mind when considering his comedic work and so much of what he does dramatically rests on kind of a tough guy persona. This is so different from anything he's done recently because he dials everything down so much and just conveys this quiet, confident intelligence that lets us know that Ben knows the deal. At one point Jules remarks just how observant Ben is and the same description can just as easily be applied to De Niro's performance, which was good enough for a nomination if more people bothered to take it seriously. They really should have.

If there's one thing missing, it's conflict or stakes of any kind,It's so efficiently written and the characters so smart and likable that you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. But let's be honest. You don't see a Nancy Meyers movie for conflict any more than you'd watch Garry Marshall's Mother's Day for explosions. It's supposed to be a palette cleanser, as you root for good people essentially being good to each other for two hours. As that, it's a phenomenal success.

There's a couple of scenes in the film where Ben and Jules are talking about their lives and it feels so organic. Two people of entirely different ages and generations finding a common ground. The line between employee and employer disappears as two friends bond over their disparate situations, that aren't quite as far apart as you'd think. And it doesn't feel corny or creepy in the slightest because of these two great actors and the fact that the right creative choices were made by Meyers to have them land naturally at this point. The Intern doesn't reinvent the wheel but is does occasionally surprise with just how much it accomplishes with a relatively simple but engaging premise.

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