One of my least favorite comedy subgenres is the “old people are adorable!” movie. You know the ones I mean: fluffy, generic comedies that place respected veteran actors in lightweight roles and then laugh at their pop culture ignorance, Viagra prescriptions and general cantankerousness before segueing into some cheap, heartstring-tugging plot strand involving mortality in the third act. As such, it's a relief to discover that Nancy Meyers' The Intern – which initially pitches itself as “Old man gets thrown into a modern, hipster-ish work environment!” - deftly avoids a lot of obvious pitfalls and treats the elderly individual at its center as a real human being. It's as blatantly sentimental as everything else Meyers has made, yes, but it's also much more thoughtful than you expect it to be.
The aforementioned old man is Ben Whitaker (Robert De Niro, Raging Bull), a 70-year-old widower and retiree who has filled his life with all sorts of new activities but still feels there's something missing in his life. He decides that maybe getting back to work will do him some good, so he applies for a special “senior internship” position at an up-and-coming internet clothing outlet. The CEO is Jules Astin (Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables), a forward-thinking workaholic who feels deeply invested in every aspect of her company. She's very good at what she does, but tends to be demanding of those who work directly under her. As such, when Ben is given a job as her personal assistant, other company employees offer him looks and words of sympathy.
Still, Ben isn't intimidated by the prospect of working for Jules, and quickly proves more than capable of handling just about any curveball she throws at him. The two form a pleasant working relationship, and Jules even introduces Ben to her stay-at-home husband Matt (Anders Holm, Workaholics) and young daughter Paige (JoJo Kushner). The relationship between Matt and Jules has come under some strain in recent days, mostly due to the fact that the company's success has required Jules to work a lot of long hours. However, some of Jules' investors have been pressuring her to find a more experienced CEO to take things over; a notion that Jules finds alternately insulting (isn't she responsible for the company's current success?) and appealing (after all, she'd probably have more free time). Though he's by no means a nosy man, Ben picks up on the details of what Jules is going through and on the conflicted emotions she seems to feel. Gently and respectfully, he offers her bits and pieces of advice, and eventually becomes something of a respected confidant.
Given his tendency to sleepwalk his way through cheap comedies in recent years, it's a pleasant surprise to discover just how good De Niro is in The Intern. This is a lovely, nuanced performance; a portrait of a decent man who conducts himself with old-school professionalism but who isn't bothered by the prospect of adapting to the nuances of the modern world. When the film first offered a look at Jules' office – with its open-door atmosphere, 21st century eccentricities and gallery of bearded, bespectacled 20-somethings – I fully expected a series of scenes in which De Niro would roll his eyes at “kids these days” and express bewilderment at this new-fangled way of doing things. Ben never bats an eye at any of this, instead earnestly asking questions about the way his superiors want him to do things and only hewing to his own personal preferences when they don't interfere with company policy (“You don't have to wear a suit.” “But is it okay if I wear a suit?”).
While De Niro earned his legendary status with a series of volatile, explosive, raw-nerve performances, his work here is defined by a series of small, graceful gestures. Just look at the scene where Jules asks Ben to come have a chat with her in a hotel room. Jules wants the aging Ben to be comfortable, so she invites him to lay down on the bed. There's nothing romantic between the two of them and she isn't trying to start something, but Ben is sill wary of the situation. Not wanting to offend, he lays down on the edge of the bed and keeps one foot planted firmly on the floor, like a '60s television actor trying to abide by network standards. It's the sort of just-right character beat that De Niro and Meyers find over and over again.
Hathaway also does nice work, persuasively capturing a modern working woman doing constant battle with her own insecurities: she's an enormously gifted CEO, but she can't escape feelings of inadequacy at work and feelings of guilt about not spending enough time at home. There's no good reason for her to doubt herself, but that doesn't change the way she feels. The character grows even more complex in the film's second half, as a personal crisis arrives that Jules responds to in a way that may divide audience members. That's intentional: Jules feels one way about the situation, Ben feels another way, and the film never gives us any definitive proof of who's right. The important thing is that they're allowed to be different people and disagree on the right thing to do without doing any damage to their friendship, which is such a refreshingly mature plot development in a world where movies are filled to the brim with contrived break-ups.
Admittedly, all of this rich character work and formula-evading freshness comes with a side portion of goofy nonsense, including a ridiculous scene in which De Niro tries to hide his erection while getting an intimate massage from company masseuse Fiona (Rene Russo, Lethal Weapon 3) and a completely preposterous sequence in which De Niro and some of the younger interns attempt to steal a laptop from an old woman's house (long story). Plus, Theodore Shapiro's score consistently pushes too hard, refusing to let any emotions linger beneath the surface. It's pleasant, melodic stuff, sure, but it mostly alternates between a series of very blatant musical statements: “This is sweet!” “This is sad!” “This is funny!”
These are familiar weaknesses for Nancy Meyers movies, but as in most cases, they aren't irksome enough to ruin what is generally a thoroughly pleasant and occasionally moving viewing experience. Her films are breezy, lightweight and filled with characters who have incredibly expensive kitchens, which can make it a little easy to dismiss the movies as fluff. Still, time after time, she manages to center her films around characters and emotions that feel genuine, and that's more than I can say about a lot of filmmakers. In The Intern, she creates a compelling portrait of a complicated friendship, directs De Niro to one of his best performances in recent years and skillfully works her way towards an affectingly low-key ending. Yes, it's true that I rolled my eyes on multiple occasions. It's also true that by the time it was over, I wanted to give this movie a hug.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 121 minutes
Release Year: 2015