Robert De Niro is a really, really adorable old person. His intense, unrelenting cuteness carries us gently through Nancy Meyers’ The Intern, a weightless, sugary comedy about elderly widower Ben (De Niro) who, in his boredom and loneliness, joins an online clothing company run by Jules (Anne Hathaway) in an unpaid “senior intern” position. The film’s two award-winning leads actually make for a naturally charming duo with genuine plutonic chemistry. It’s too bad then that Meyers, in an attempt to make an already likable movie even more likable, overdoes it and stuffs the movie with blaring feel-good music, blunt and sappy dialogue, and a nauseating excess of cuteness. In trying too hard to please, The Intern annoys instead.
The script, being of definitively made-for-TV quality, is packed with contrivances (like the dumb one-line explanation for why they’re hiring unpaid old people in the first place), one-dimensional characters and dialogue so impressively on-the-nose you’ll cringe more than once. The first act introduces us to Ben, with a lot of the humor coming from his inability to understand computers and social media. Ha ha, old people don’t know how to do young people things, so true. In March, I lamented how lame and underdeveloped these generational observations felt in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, but at least Baumbach’s jokes were funny. There’s a ‘joke’ in here where De Niro reads something about computers and then says something like, “I don’t know what any of this means.” My theater audience found it hysterical…
Things begin to pick up when Ben finally meets Jules, since it introduces a classic odd couple relationship and thus opens the door to organic opportunities for both humor and drama. That said, the Jules character is (at first) no more complex than Ben. She’s just a quick-moving, quick-talking business owner who doesn’t have time for family or friends. She rides her bike through the office, do you see? She is always moving, do you see?! She maybe needs to learn to slow down, you feel? Meanwhile, Ben just wants somewhere to belong. He wants someone to care for. But what if they learned… to care for each other?
Here’s the thing though. I can make fun of how predictable the entire plot of the movie is, but it’s kind of miraculous how far Hathaway and De Niro’s performances go in elevating this piece of bargain bin storytelling into something kind of, sort of, almost enjoyable. This is especially true for De Niro, who is the absolute epitome of what every man wants to be like when they’re old. His facial expressions are truly hilarious, especially in a mirror scene that is most likely a Taxi Driver reference, reminding us how crazy it is that this is the same dude who was in Taxi Driver. It’s his pureness of spirit and not his sense of humor that he most palpably conveys, though, and I genuinely cared about his quest to find a new place to belong, despite how simplistic and obvious his journey is.
The more cloying elements begin with the supporting cast, some of which are likable enough (Adam Devine, Andrew Rannells and Christina Scherer), but most of which serve little purpose in the grand scheme of things, and some who are only there for a chance to cram in some unfunny jokes (like Rene Russo, who is De Niro’s love interest in the movie’s most ghastly, unfunny and pointless plot thread). Hathaway’s character also has a child, played by a kid who is so unbearably adorable it almost triggered my gag reflex. The overabundance of supporting characters jockeying way, way too hard to get a laugh or an “awwww” from the audience really wore me down over the film’s slightly overlong two-hour runtime.
The truly insufferable factor, though, is the music. My God, the music. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie that misused audio this badly. I’m not sure what’s worse, the unbelievably manipulative score that often doesn’t fit with what’s going on onscreen, or the sudden, blaring pop music that sometimes makes it hard to hear the dialogue. It shows a lack of confidence on Meyers’ part, and a condescension toward her audience, that she feels she has to rely on such overbearing music to convey the feel-good tone she’s going for. This abuse of audio is especially sad given that the actors prove they are endearing enough to engage viewers without such a crutch.
The final third of the film sees Meyers settle into a groove, becoming brave enough to veer out towards interesting thematic ideas regarding powerful female businesswomen and the specific challenges they face and sacrifices they’re sometimes forced to make. Though this is kind of a tangent from what the movie was about previously, it’s refreshing to see a female filmmaker grapple with undoubtedly personal topics in a way we don’t see enough of in Hollywood, and it adds a good amount of depth to Hathaway’s character that was missing before.
In the end, The Intern is nothing more than mildly likable, cutesy mainstream cheese. Still, you can see a lot of trying on every level of the process. The people involved care, a lot, and they really, really want you to like it. Though that trying often comes across as cloying, maybe even pandering, there are moments of real sincerity at its core.
Score: 2.5 out of 5