Nancy Meyer’s The Intern is an agreeable enough entertainment, low key and charming. My wife and I enjoyed it, especially the first two-thirds of the movie, before it got all squishy. What’s odd about it, though, is that it’s just about the most conservative movie I’ve seen in a good long while. It’s not conservative politically, particularly; it’s not really a political movie, at least not overtly. It’s not contentiously political, in any kind of partisan sense. It’s conservative in this sense: the unmistakable message of the movie is that old guys rule.
So, Robert De Niro plays Ben, a 70-year-old former executive, now retired, who finds that time weighs heavily when you don’t have a job to go to. He sees a flyer for a elder-intern program, and on a whim, applies for it, getting his nine-year-old granddaughter to help him with the required video job application. It’s at an on-line fashion website, founded and run by Jules, played by Anne Hathaway.
Hathaway’s company looks like a fun place to work. It’s one of those e-commerce start-ups where the employees are all 24, and there aren’t any offices, and the boss gets from meeting to meeting by riding her bicycle, weaving in and out of people’s workstations. Jules herself seems sort of insanely hand-on, as a boss. Characters talk about how ‘tough’ and ‘difficult’ she is, but she never seems anything but kind of sweet and supportive, if a trifle scattered. She does dump a lot on her personal assistant, Becky (Christina Sherer), who was otherwise winsome and charming.
Anyway, Ben shows up, the new intern, and initially fits in like a Mormon at a wine tasting. He can barely use a computer, he’s forty-plus years older than everyone else, and he wears a suit and tie in a shop where casual hardly begins to describe the dress code. But he’s smart, and hard-working, and he begins to find jobs that need doing, and does them briskly and efficiently, and Jules begins to notice that that desk where everyone just piled all their crap has been neatly organized and that memos that once just disappeared seem to show up when she needs them. And it freaks her out, and she fires Ben. He’s just so . . . observant, she says.
He stays fired for one day, as she realizes how indispensable he’s become. A key moment arises when she realizes that she sent an overly-frank email to her Mom. Ben puts a team of geeks together, they break into her Mom’s home and delete the email. So that maybe goes outside the usual duties of an intern at a start-up, but it was a funny moment. It solidifies Ben’s value for Jules and for her company, and she realizes just how special and important he is to her. And love blossoms.
No, it doesn’t. No love, no romance, no rom-com nonsense. Actually, Ben hooks up with the company masseuse (Rene Russo). (Of course, they have a company masseuse). To the extent that the film is a rom-com, it’s not a May/December romance; more like a November/December one. I would have hated the movie if a De Niro/Hathaway romance had happened, and there are numerous moments in the film where it looked like it might. I applaud the movie for not going there. I mean, Rene Russo is eleven years younger than Robert De Niro (she’s 61, he’s 72), but that’s at least plausible. No, it turns out that Jules doesn’t need, or want, a septuagenarian lover. What she wants is a Dad.
Ben’s old-school values (standing when women enter a room, keeping a handkerchief handy for those inevitable female crying jags, politeness and discretion) transform, not only the company (all the guys there start dressing better), but also Jules’ life. Her marriage is on the rocks; Ben becomes her sounding board and confidante. He babysits her daughter.
The central conflict in the film is an odd one; should Jules hire an experienced businessman as CEO of the company, letting him (it’s inevitably a guy) run the company, so she can spend more time at home, fixing her marriage. In fact, from a business sense, a CEO makes sense. Jules is perhaps a trifle too hands-on and scattered to be an effective boss, and as business has increased, things have been falling through the cracks. Her investors have been pressing her to hire someone, and much of the film involves her interviews with prospective . . . bosses? Because she’ll report to whoever she hires? Not sure how that works, since it’s her company–there’s no suggestion of a board, or that the company is beholden to stockholders. But I’m not a businessman; maybe this makes business-world sense.
Except Ben thinks this hire is a bad idea, and that means that it is a bad idea, because, in the world of this film, Ben is always, always right. Because he’s an old guy, experienced, with the wisdom of his years. It turns out that Jules company does probably need better management. Which Ben is perfectly capable of providing. As an intern. And as Jules’ surrogate Daddy. (No problem, either, with Jules and Ben working together–she’ll just do everything he says).
Now, Ben isn’t some fossil. He’s a self-described feminist. His late wife, we hear, was a jr. high principal, which suggests a woman with some force to her personality. And De Niro has a lot of fun with the role. He’s charming and funny, and carries an otherwise rather limp picture. Still, we can’t escape what seems to be the film’s essential premise. Old guys rock. Old is the new Young. Old people have hard-earned wisdom and an understanding of how the world works, and should therefore be listened to.
Well, I’m getting older, and I certainly don’t think I have an special insight into the world. And I look around at old guys, and I think a lot of us are cranky and have to take a lot of pills, and watch Fox News and intend to vote for Donald Trump. And some old guys really are awesome. It depends on the old guy, is what I’m saying. Which is, of course, really what this film is saying too; that it’s Ben that rules, not just older people. Except that this film has something else going on too.
It’s a film in which every real-life serious conflict basically disappears. It’s a film in which the ugliness and scarring pain of real life are simply . . . dispensed with, waved away by magic Ben and his unerring advice. And that’s another thing about older folks that I’ve noticed, that a lot of them, even while dealing with genuine difficulties incident to age, nonetheless want to offer advice that neatens up life’s essential messiness. I mean, isn’t there also just this kind of reality-denial at the heart of contemporary conservatism? There are two main conflicts in this film, both involving Jules, Hathaway’s character, and both just sort of . . . disappear. Because: Ben.
I understand, of course, that Hollywood is selling fantasy, just as Jules is on her website. But Nancy Meyers takes some shortcuts here, making her film more palatable. Ben’s health is never an issue, and neither are the other actual issues the film pretends to deal with–infidelity, marriage communication. The resolution of these issues is way less interesting than the way they’re all initially raised. I liked The Intern just fine. But there’s a better movie here, wishing it could emerge.