Like a demographics whitepaper come to life, Nancy Meyers's The Intern throws two of contemporary America's biggest social forces against one another: rapidly retiring boomers, in the form of 70-year-old intern Robert De Niro, and tech-savvy millennials, in the form of his harried, early-30s boss Anne Hathaway and her start-up filled with young'uns. It opens with De Niro, as Brooklyn widower Ben Whittaker, explaining his situation in awkwardly simple voice-over: He’s retired, he’s lonely, he’s been trying to fill his days with a myriad of activities, and he feels it’s time for a change. “I just know there’s a hole in my life, and I need to fill it.” There’s a reason he’s being so painfully direct: This is a Nancy Meyers film. But there’s another reason, too: We’re watching Ben's application video for a senior intern program at a hot new fashion e-commerce site called About the Fit.
Ben is plain, methodical, and simple. Jules Ostin (Hathaway) is quirky, frantic, and overworked. She started About the Fit in her Brooklyn kitchen and now has a couple hundred employees. Her day is stacked with meetings, and she rides around the office on a bike to keep up. She's not even sure that she's ever heard of this senior internship program, because when Ben shows up for his first day of work, Jules has absolutely zero idea what to do with him. (“I’m not good with old people,” she protests.) But it turns out that these crazy kids with their untucked shirts and their Instagram accounts and their catchphrases (“Gray is the new green!” “Sitting is the new smoking!”) can learn a thing or two from this hardworking, seemingly outdated man’s man. He's respectful, he dresses in a tie, he makes sure not to leave the office until the boss leaves, and he basically does everything better than everybody else. Meanwhile, they teach him about Facebook and fist-bumps.
At her best, Meyers captures the innate charm of her performers and creates milieus in which we like to spend time. (The two concepts are related: We hear a lot about how nice the houses and kitchens in her films are, but that’s because she often fills them with characters we like.) At her worst, her characterizations and plotting seem designed to prove a point rather than to tell a story. The Intern straddles both her weaknesses and her strengths. We spend much of the first half of the film watching Ben predictably prove himself the superior of the kids around him; he's chivalrous, he’s better organized, he's observant and sympathetic, and he knows Brooklyn way better than they do. But it mostly works because Meyers uses De Niro well. The actor’s later career is sick with anonymous paycheck gigs, but here his natural reserve — which in his greatest films reads as neurosis, melancholy, or submerged violence — comes off as discretion and patience. We like the guy, and that counts for a lot.
For most of its running time, The Intern gets off on De Niro's amiability and Hathaway's sweet energy: She makes being busy and tired and ambitious and frantic seem kind of fun. The rub, however, is that she’s got a family at home — a stay-at-home-dad husband and an adorable young daughter — and they’re feeling neglected. Meanwhile, Jules’s investors are demanding that she hire a CEO, which will reduce her workload but also put her under someone else’s leadership. And so the film gradually becomes less about her relationship with Ben and more about her search for a new business partner, and her uncertainty about whether she should even hire one, and about how she’s not spending enough time at home, and about whether that’s a condescending thing to say to a woman in the first place, and about whether anyone would be so worried about her workload if she were a man, and about … well, about a lot of things, many of them in-artfully expressed. So The Intern degenerates into a series of monologues about ambition and relationships and having it all. As the speeches pile up, our goodwill dissipates, and so does the film’s magic.