At a time when some romantic comedies are flexing an edgier, more smart-ass tone—They Came Together, Sleeping With Other People, even Trainwreck—perhaps it’s a refreshing palate-cleanser that Nancy Meyers movies continue to operate in their own storybook world. You know what to expect from the writer-director behind It’s Complicated and Something’s Gotta Give: well-to-do characters working in high-status jobs who always have amazing kitchens and the breeziest of dispositions. For all the rightful complaining that Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with actresses “of a certain age,” Meyers has crafted major roles in studio comedies for the likes of Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton, exploring the difficulties of finding love and happiness after 50—an age range that rarely stars at the multiplex outside of a Last Vegas or new Schwarzenegger film. But because her movies are so fluffy—everybody is always so damn adorable and shiny and pretty and happy in them—they feel like fantasies, two hours of chocolate candy eaten while sitting on the comfiest couch ever.
Technically, The Intern isn’t a rom-com—it’s more of a workplace comedy—but it still operates in the same dream world as Meyers’ previous films. This one has more of the sting of real life to it than she normally allows, and while it’s still packed in her usual gauze, The Intern isn’t just likable and sweet, but also poignant. In the process, Robert De Niro gives one of his best performances in far too long. She humanizes his shtick; he grounds her adorableness in something real.
De Niro plays Ben, a 70-year-old New York City retiree who’s battling loneliness after the death of his wife of more than 40 years. Filling his time with yoga, learning Mandarin, and other hobbies, Ben is itching to return to the workforce, and so a flyer catches his eye advertising an intern program for senior citizens. Soon, he’s assigned to a trendy online clothing company run by the workaholic Jules (Hathaway). She’s initially resistant to the guy—she likes being surrounded by young people like herself—but slowly she takes a shine to Ben, discovering that his calm demeanor and experience are huge helps to her rising startup.
There’s no denying that The Intern has all the trappings of a Meyers joint. (I actually laughed out loud when Jules’ fabulous kitchen is revealed.) The movie is filled with gorgeous brownstones, first-class airline seats, and swanky hotels, and while the characters have their problems, nobody ever seems particularly troubled or bothered. It’s like a Restoration Hardware catalog come to life, and with the same amount of depth.
But beneath the shimmer, Meyers does have some themes she digs into. Jules may dress fabulously and have a lucrative company that works out of a hip New York factory space, but the truth is she’s overwhelmed on all sides: Venture capitalists want her to hire a seasoned CEO to oversee the growing business, and although her relationship with her house-husband (Anders Holm) and young daughter (JoJo Kushner) is good, she feels the strain of being away from them so much—not to mention the judgmental looks she gets from her daughter’s friends’ moms, who have more time for their kids. The cynical would complain that Jules should be grateful—not everybody has a husband who will give up his own career to stay at home with the kid, or have the financial wherewithal to make it work—but Hathaway brings just enough self-awareness to the character that she comes across as a legitimate, fleshed-out version of The Woman Who Wants To Have It All.
It’s indicative of The Intern’s feel-good tone that its central tension never resonates: Everybody in the office warns Ben that Jules is a real handful, but at worst she’s only slightly uptight. (It’s hard to not to think of The Devil Wears Prada, where Hathaway worked for a real nightmare of a boss.) Consequently, Ben’s slow buildup of trust with Jules, first becoming her driver and then developing into a trusted adviser, isn’t particularly difficult. He’s a sweet guy, and she’s a nice lady, and they quickly come to enjoy each other’s company, if only out of recognition of being unfairly maligned demographics: a 70-year-old put out to pasture and a driven female boss who also happens to be a wife and mom.
While the movie can too easily fall into sermonizing about the importance of listening to our elders, De Niro is pretty terrific as the last of the old-school good guys. Stoic understatement has been the man’s comic strategy forever—except when he got progressively goofier in those stupid Fockers sequels—but in The Intern, there’s also a sad, smiling resignation to the character, a sense that Ben learned long ago not to show his feelings so as not to burden others. Ben’s previous career in the phone-book industry is a light running joke throughout the movie—his life’s work is now obsolete—but Meyers and De Niro don’t overdo the irony. The Intern doesn’t have the sophistication or wit of an About Schmidt, but it shares with that Alexander Payne comedy-drama an unspoken acknowledgement that its senior-citizen character has more years behind him than ahead, a realization that subtly colors everything Ben does in the film. (And, in a scene that involves Singin’ in the Rain, De Niro offers another perspective on his unwavering good guy that’s surprisingly touching.)
There’s plenty to nitpick. For some reason, Meyers stages a wacky Ocean’s Eleven-style heist at one point, and too many of the jokes are sitcom-cutesy rather than being actually funny. But in a Meyers film, pleasantness is all, and De Niro and Hathaway are such good company that it’s enough. Her films are fantasies, and not always very deft ones. But with The Intern, she lets a little life flourish inside the beautifully manicured set design.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.