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There’s something really soothing about a Nancy Meyers movie. Everything looks so good; both polished and cozy. It’s not just the real estate porn, which had its most blatant manifestation in the Hamptons beach house featured in Meyers’ ageism-juggling 2003 rom-com “Something’s Gotta Give.” It’s also the furnishings, like the rotating tie rack in the bedroom of the brownstone owned by Robert De Niro’s retired businessman in her latest, "The Intern." It’s how all the surfaces gleam: “The Intern” was shot at locations mostly within walking distance of where I actually live, and while it is a very blessed part of Brooklyn, its windows are not normally quite as uniformly shiny as those of the buildings seen here.
And often this soothing quality serves as a distraction from how inane and uncomfortable a movie such as “Something’s Gotta Give” can be. But here’s the thing: “The Intern,” while having its share of silly moments, is the most genuinely enjoyable and likable movie that Meyers—a longtime writer and producer before taking up directing—has put her name to since, oh, I don’t know, 1984’s “Irreconcilable Differences.”
De Niro has the title role here, as he did in “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” and even “The King of Comedy.” His character’s name is Ben Whittaker, and he’s a retired, well-off widower in Brooklyn who’s bored with the relative inactivity of his current, pleasant mode of living. So he applies for a position in a “Senior Intern Program” at an e-commerce concern called “About The Fit,” and winds up reporting to its founder, Jules, an exemplary, for Meyers, 21st Century entrepreneur type; not too far beneath her sunny exterior—she IS played by Anne Hathaway, after all—is a highly driven and possibly blinkered go-getter.
De Niro’s character here is one that he pretty much never played during what many consider his acting heyday: a decent, straightforward, non-neurotic regular guy who’s gotten somewhere good in life. And in this movie, he plays it rather well. There’s something slightly Woody Allenesque about his opening scene, in which he constructs a job-application video. His role calls for him to do a certain amount of mugging as he interacts with younger colleagues and learns about the Weird Things These Kids Today Do With Their Relationships And The Internet and such. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t dwell on senior-citizen bemusement with the Digital Age all too much; one of the points of De Niro’s character is that he’s alert and competent and wants to be of service. He has a hard time being of service to Jules, whose relentless focus makes her immediately distrustful of anyone who has an insight as to how she conceives and runs her business. And the movie is rather good at the details of that business, and the way that Jules’ vision for it defines its practical particulars.
But Ben manages to get into Jules’ good graces partly via patriarchal stealth, as when he confronts Jules’ driver after seeing him take a few nips out of a paper bag right before the soon-to-be-ex-employee is supposed to take her to a meeting in Manhattan. Ben’s internship happens to coincide with a challenging period in the growth of Jules’ company; Jules’ aide-de-camp Cameron (a very understated Andrew Rannells) brings her the unusual news that the company’s investors, while delighted with its success, would like to bring an outside CEO to the company. Jules dutifully interviews prospects even as she’s dizzied by the idea that she could be effectively ousted from her own creation. In the meantime, her home life—she has a too-milquetoasty-to-be-a-bro-dad husband (Anders Holm) and a predictably delightful and adorable young daughter (JoJo Kushner)—is taking the standard can-a-career-woman-have-it-all hits. And at least one hit that’s not so standard, or maybe I should say, not so easy to stand.
Through all of this Ben maintains a careful, empathetic watch—early in their relationship, Jules pinpoints her discomfort with him as arising because he’s too “observant”—and when he steps in to offer help, he does so in a discreetly chivalrous way that actually runs counter to any “here comes daddy to save the day” expectations. Ben, as it happens, genuinely admires Jules—looks up to her, you might say—and when he does bring his experience as a businessman to bear on Jules’ own enterprise, it’s in the spirit of sharing knowledge rather than that of correction. When push comes to shove, Ben offers Jules the assurance that the thing to do is be tough and go after what you want.
The adages of “The Intern” are delivered in a comedy package that, for the most part, is sane, sweet, and smart, and a lot of the time, actually funny. A budding romance between Ben and the company’s in-house masseuse (Rene Russo) is fodder for two groan-inducing visual gags. But a silly set piece in which Ben enlists some of the younger goofballs of About The Fit on a housebreaking mission, replete with latter-day “Ocean’s Eleven” references, is actually a tolerable bit of rompage. And everyone in the cast, including Hathaway, who, for the record, I have never not liked, is extremely appealing. “What have you done with my husband?” my wife asked me the other night when I came home and told her I’d had a genuinely good time watching a Nancy Meyers movie. What could I say? You’re never too old to keep an open mind.