There’s a moment in Nancy Meyers’ newest film The Intern when Anne Hathaway stops on the sidewalk in front of her lush Brooklyn abode and remarks her love for its facade. “It just looks happy to me,” she states with pride. “Like if it was in a kids’ book it’d make you happy to turn the page and see what’s inside.” Meyer’s script sculpts that same guise of overt sweetness with a menagerie of endearing characters and charming exchanges, and it is undeniably a pleasant two hours at the movies. But, unlike Hathaway’s hypothetical storybook, you may not care about what’s inside once you open it.
Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) is a lonely widower who spends his days practicing yoga in a park and visiting funerals for his group of slowly dwindling friends, until one day when he serendipitously discovers a flyer for a senior citizen outreach program at a local tech start-up. Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway) runs that start-up with a tightly-wound but agreeably gentle iron fist in an office that uses bicycles to visit different departments and rings a special red-colored bell for when anything “important or exciting” happens, like an Instagram post that just reached 2,500 likes.
You can see the mispronounced millennial slang barreling to you from a mile away, and the moment De Niro has trouble waking his Macbook from slumber on his first day, you may wish he’d just get fired so it could all end early. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t delve into the blunt obviousness of Ben’s situation for too long as to make it awkward. Instead, it points out parts of Ben’s life that everyone around him thinks to be weird (“You shave everyday?” a male coworker asks, bewildered. “Even when you’re sure you won’t see anyone you know?”) and subsequently creates an appreciatively cute dynamic among him and his new co-workers.
There’s some decent side-talent, too, including half the cast of Workaholics, with Adam DeVine in a minor role as one of Ben’s coworkers and Anders Holm getting a bit more to do as Jules’s husband Matt. Renee Russo shows up as the office masseuse Fiona, and since she’s one of the only other cast members over 60, you can essentially guess where her and De Niro’s friendship leads.
Everyone is good, but the characters they inhabit are far too simplistic and vague to be anything beyond amusing. Ben is delightful and loyal and true, but he never feels like he actually was anyone’s husband for 42 years, or was ever lonely afterwards, or sees an honest reason for connecting with Jules beyond being workplace accomplices. He’s believable as a gooey-on-the-inside septuagenarian (essentially because he’s Robert De Niro), but he’s bland. Hathaway gets a bit more to juggle here, especially with a late-in-the-game plot turn, but – and stop me if this sounds familiar – she’s too nice and genial as the much-feared boss everyone’s whispering about.
No one goes to a Nancy Meyers movie for the hard-edged blunt realism, but there’s an oppressive sameness to the movie that’s never unbearable, but also never engaging. There’s no real plot to speak of; Jules needs to find a CEO for her company, Ben needs to not be alone, and they sort of meet in the middle by the time the credits roll. An attempt at introducing some much-needed drama into the third act is also a bit half-baked, and saddled onto one of the cast members who doesn’t exactly pull off the dramatic turn the roll requires.
Passes are made at edginess when Ben takes Fiona on a first date to a funeral (how dark!), or in a particularly odd breaking-and-entering tangent, complete with some Ocean’s 11-style music buffeting in the background, but, like the movie as a whole, it’s never more than averagely amusing. Meyer dips the film’s toes in some interesting waters when conversations about Ben’s age are brought up, or Jules’s sexist encounters in the corporate world, but they’re all presented by such flimsy characters – and in a world filled mostly with affluent straight white people – that none of its stances ever really feel important or memorable or justified.
The Intern, essentially, has all the building blocks and materials to be great, but it’s simply aggressively amiable. The story doesn’t really amount to anything more than and then he drove Jules here, the characters don’t even grow or change (I’d argue that one of the leads, in fact, degrades by the head-spinningly dumb finale), and while De Niro and Hathaway have an easy chemistry about them, their growth from impersonal acquaintances to BFFs feels somewhat unearned, even in the two hours it takes to get there.
I’d be hard-pressed to see anyone hating The Intern, but I’d say the same thing about anyone loving it, as well. The comedy here is never uproarious or worth more than a chuckle, and the drama – what little of it – feels like its in service to Meyer’s need of third-act tension than anything actually resembling organic turmoil. Really, it’s two hours of nice people saying nice things to one another in relatively nice places and it has that warm Nancy Meyers glow emanating from every still shot of the Manhattan skyline, and that may be enough for some; hell, it nearly was for me. But, unlike some of her better work, it’s a little dull, a little repetitive, and without any true voice or statement or justification for existing in the first place.
It's hard to be mean about a movie this nice, but that's all The Intern is: cute, endearing, and nice, with no real drama, character depth, or apparent understanding of its own somewhat engaging central premise.