Behind at least one successful woman stands an older, wiser man. That, at least, is the chief takeaway from “The Intern,” a perky generation-gap fable that sneaks some surprisingly conservative gender politics into its stainless new world of online startups and amply product-placed Macbooks. Starring Robert De Niro as the tirelessly benevolent retiree who becomes fashion entrepreneur Anne Hathaway’s unlikely guide to work-life equilibrium, this is smooth white-linen entertainment, unmistakably of a piece with the plush oeuvre of writer-director Nancy Meyers. Yet it takes all the leads’ considerable combined charm to forestall the aftertaste of the pic’s smug life lessons and near-comically blinkered worldview. Supplanting the romantic fizz of “It’s Complicated” and “Something’s Gotta Give” with scarf-deep social engagement may cost Meyers’ latest a little at the box office, but this “Intern” will still be reasonably well-paid by an under-served date-night crowd.
“Love and work, work and love, that’s all there is,” intones 70-year-old widower Ben Whittaker (De Niro) in the film’s opening voiceover — vaguely quoting Freud, but pinpointing the extended concerns of Meyers’ screenplay with ruthless accuracy. (An hour later, one character will suggest changing the subject in a work-focused conversation. “Marriage?” another eagerly suggests. These are the options.) Marital stability and professional achievement are the two objectives by which “The Intern” defines its characters and narrative alike, at the expense of any deeper personal or cultural interests; when Ben tells a date that he can summarize himself in 10 seconds, the script gives us little reason to doubt him.
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For Hathaway’s heavily burdened career woman Jules Ostin, on the other hand, even 10 seconds of self-description is time she can ill afford to spare. The founder and president of About the Fit, a Brooklyn-based online couture retailer in the mold of Net-a-Porter, she’s a Type A micromanager who has trouble leaving even customer service calls in the hands of her eminently capable employees. When her patient deputy (Andrew Rannells) announces that she’s to be assigned an assistant via the company’s newly-introduced senior intern program, she takes it as a personal affront.
Enter Ben, whose affability and helpfulness are as consistent as the square charcoal business suits he wears every day. After trying out a host of hobbies and adult education courses to stave off the loneliness of spouseless retirement, the former telephone-directory manufacturer (a pointedly analog career path) has come back around to the workplace: Tai chi classes are all very well, but can’t verily be classified as either work or love. Hoping for a new lease on life from the fiercely young, hip surrounds of About the Fit, he arrives with rolled-up sleeves and a can-do attitude — only to be brusquely ignored by Jules, more frazzled than ever following pressure from investors to hire a senior male CEO for the company.
By this point, it can’t have escaped viewers’ attention that Meyers has fashioned “The Intern” as something of a generational backflip on “The Devil Wears Prada,” with the cannily cast Hathaway having graduated to the role of corporate fashion dragon. (She’s even permitted, in a witty touch, to toss her jacket at Ben in the blasé manner of Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestley.) The difference, of course, is that Jules hasn’t quite Priestley’s time-hardened unflappability, while De Niro is no hapless naif a la Andie Sachs: The balance of authority between them is awkward from the get-go, as Jules complains that her well-seasoned intern is “too observant.”
The turning point, as in “Prada,” is when home-work boundaries are crossed. Ben steps in for Jules’ personal chauffeur (her on-trend preference for cycling, cited in introductory scenes, is inexplicably forgotten), getting to know her young daughter Paige (JoJo Kushner) and affable stay-at-home husband Matt (deftly played by Anders Holm) in the process. Yet as Jules’ marriage, rather than any workplace dilemmas, becomes the focus of the drama, “The Intern’s” superficially 21st-century outlook on age and gender takes on a more regressively paternalistic slant. Jules asserts that she can have it all, but she requires an awful lot of mentoring from Ben — whose professional and marital history is, at least as he tells it, wholly unblemished — to get to that point. There’s not a lot of inter-generational exchange here, as Ben arrives in the narrative with little to learn; beyond helping him set up a Facebook page, Jules doesn’t get to impart much perspective of her own.
Before long, Ben’s even monitoring her drinking with raised eyebrows: She may come to call him her “best friend” (largely because there’s scant evidence of any others), but the subtext is that it’s hard for a woman in her position to find support among her own. Certainly, the film’s other female characters do little for its feminist credentials: Jules’ fellow kindergarten moms are characterized as spiteful housewives, while her mother (heard, never seen) is a passive-aggressive needler. The great Celia Weston is egregiously wasted as a dippy elder intern, while as the frisky office masseuse — this is a Nancy Meyers film, after all — who embarks on a staid courtship with Ben, fellow “oldie-but-goodie” Rene Russo has little to do but twinkle kindly from the sidelines. (She’s over a decade younger than De Niro, but “oldie” status comes early in this world.)
If older women get short shrift, then, their male counterparts are praised to the skies. Hathaway even gets to deliver a wince-worthy sermon to Jules’ cardigan-wearing twentysomething male employees — themselves equally in thrall to Ben — bemoaning the decline of masculinity and decorum in modern men. Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford (not to mention, by implication, De Niro himself), by contrast, are held up as superior role models of “cool.” This is pretty retrograde stuff, and hardly plausible coming from Jules given her own husband’s enlightened decision to give up his career for hers — not exactly a maneuver from the Jack Nicholson playbook.
At least there’s a genuine crackle of chemistry between Hathaway and De Niro to sell us on their characters’ mutual appreciation: Both actors can perform this kind of personality-led comedy on cue, but also tease out unscripted hints of inner conflict when so inclined. Hathaway does particularly well in a role that frequently draws direct attention to its own unlikeability: Both the steelier and more genial sides of the actress’s signature class-captain charisma play persuasively into her business persona.
Meyers’ detractors often cite her films’ narrow focus on a moneyed sliver of society, and true to form, the story world in “The Intern” could hardly be more homogeneous: For a film set predominantly in Brooklyn, the racial uniformity of the ensemble is regrettably striking. (Ben admits early on that he took Mandarin classes for a stretch; in Meyers’ vision of the Big Apple, it’s hard to imagine what use he might have for them.) Though the pic is brightly shot by Stephen Goldblatt and scored with chipper deodorant-ad zeal by Theodore Shapiro, it’s Kristi Zea’s impeccable production design that again proves the most defining technical element of Meyers’ filmmaking. From the sharp white corners of About the Fit’s warehouse-conversion offices to the ivory calico textures of Jules’ gorgeously refurbished brownstone, all “The Intern’s” interiors radiate a most exclusive kind of expense.