With her cashmere-soft touch, eye for design, ear for dialogue and heartfelt explorations of the ever-shifting dynamics between men and women, writer-director-producer Nancy Meyers makes movies that are both commercial and idiosyncratically personal. Her new film, “The Intern,” is every inch a Nancy Meyers film, for better and for worse.
As one of the most successful female filmmakers in Hollywood, Meyers makes movies as aggressively and unmistakably hers as more obvious counterparts such as Michael Mann.
Meyers straddles a line between the fizzy fantasies of classical Hollywood and the emotional realities of modern life. This becomes the motivating tension in her movies, as their stories exist between the lives her characters envision and the ones they actually live. Hence the aspirational kitchens.
In “The Intern” Anne Hathaway is Jules Ostin, founder of an online clothing retailer that has become successful quickly, something of a mix of Nasty Gal and Net-A-Porter. She rides a bicycle around the sprawling industrial-chic, open-plan office in Brooklyn’s Red Hook and amid its growing workforce, desperately trying to stay on top of things.
Enter Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro), a 70-year-old retired widower who joins the company’s new “senior intern program” largely to have someplace to go and something to do. Though Jules is at first reluctant to engage with him, soon enough he becomes an indispensable aide-de-camp, confidant and friend. Jules faces new challenges both at home with her husband Matt (Anders Holm) and at the office, because her investors are pressuring her to bring in an experienced CEO.
Meyers’ earlier films “Something’s Gotta Give” with Diane Keaton and “It’s Complicated” with Meryl Streep found Meyers dealing with issues of female characters more or less her own age and dealing with issues of aging and post-kids, post-divorce life. Her new film pulses with a more purposefully current sort of energy. For example, the music in a quick scene-setting montage in “It’s Complicated” featured a boomer chestnut by Crosby, Stills and Nash, while a similar moment in “The Intern” uses a recent hit by Kendrick Lamar.
The smartest idea in the movie is that that the relationship between Jules and Ben never goes anywhere near being romantic. The second-smartest idea is that De Niro’s character used to work for a company that printed phone books, the very notion of which bewilders his young colleagues at a tech-era start-up, giving the film the feeling of one generation checking in with another. Unfortunately, Meyers adds one more layer to that idea, which pushes it too far into movie-land coincidence and cliché.
The film isn’t concerned with the real spatial geography of Brooklyn or the distinctive characteristics of its many neighborhoods. Hathaway’s character lives in a cloistered world where a car service car whisks her to and from a multi-story brownstone every day. How De Niro’s character gets to and from the office, whether by walking, bus or subway, is never shown.
The 1987 film “Baby Boom,” co-written by Meyers with then-husband Charles Shyer, was explicitly concerned with the notion of “having it all,” whether a woman could have a family and a career. In “The Intern” the focus is on the contemporary iteration of life-work balance — whether the relentless, competitive demands of the digital-age work environment can leave room for anything else.
De Niro brings a fresh, relaxed lightness to his performance, tinged with the gruff charm of Spencer Tracy. Many of the best moments in the film involve placing Ben in relief to the younger male employees who become his de facto charges, as they learn the wonders of a briefcase, the power of tucking in a shirt or the importance of taking responsibility for their sloppy cluelessness.
Meyers cheats a bit in making Ben already evolved as a self-described feminist in his thinking regarding women in power in the workplace and as breadwinners at home. Jules bemoans the way in which men now dress and act like boys — and Meyers seems to be pointing a finger at post-Apatow depictions of men in the movies — by holding up Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford as pinnacles of manliness but without full reflection as to the conflict those same ideals can create. (Ford, for example, is on his third marriage, to a woman more than 20 his junior.)
At one point De Niro gets emotional watching Gene Kelly sing “You Were Meant for Me” to Debbie Reynolds in “Singin’ in the Rain,” a nod to both the classical Hollywood that Meyers looks to update and more straightforward notions of romance.
As Ben becomes increasingly involved in supporting Jules in her decisions, the film inadvertently pushes against a line where paternal becomes patronizing. In examining Jules’ difficulties in being an ever-chipper, unstoppable overachiever — including a late-night crying jag with puffy eyes and splotchy skin — the movie seems to be addressing “the Hathahaters,” those who turned against Hathaway for somehow being too together all the time.
A comedic midmovie sequence involving a mini-heist by Ben and his boys feels like it belongs in some other movie and causes the film to temporarily lose focus. Overall the film feels scattered, an assortment of scenes and ideas that mostly represent a notebook full of thoughts from Nancy Meyers.
Thankfully, that still makes for a better, funnier and more considered movie than much of what passes for nonfranchise studio filmmaking, even as it shows a world almost exclusively white, straight and upmarket. With “The Intern,” Meyers has made another bright, contemporary American comedy with a lot on its mind — and works hard to make it look effortless.
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Rating: PG-13 for some suggestive content and brief strong language
Playing: In wide release