The Intern, from writer-director Nancy Myers (It’s Complicated), serves as a popular entertainment with two movie stars in likeable mode, a sunny Hollywood sheen, and a novel premise. And yet there’s something vaguely unsettling about how Myers’ mildly amusing comedy gets tangled up in political (in)correctness.
Robert De Niro plays cuddly seventy-year-old widower Ben Whittaker, who has tried and found wanting all forms of post-retirement occupation, from Mandarin classes to sitting around coffee shops, from tai chi to a one-night-stand with his enthusiastic Brooklyn neighbor (Linda Lavin). When Ben gets wind of the Senior Internship Program at e-commerce fashion outfit About the Fit, he hopefully submits a video resume and not only easily gets the gig but also a plum assignment to assist the company’s founder and president Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway).
Naturally, Jules voices skepticism about both the intern program (which she has forgotten she agreed to) and her own need for an intern. For Jules’ primary character flaw is her need to micromanage, which results in her being overwhelmed and under-focused on the long-term needs of her eighteen-month-old company, as well as on shaky ground in her marriage to her supportive but restless husband Matt (Anders Holm). As serious talk emerges of installing a CEO who isn’t Jules (and is, in all likelihood, male), pressure’s on, and tightening by the day. These conditions ensure that Jules will remain defensive against the experienced Ben even as she needs his business acumen and life experience the most.
To the extent that The Intern is Ben’s story (and it is nominally framed that way by Ben’s video resume, which opens the picture with the line “Freud says, ‘Love and work, work and love—that’s all there is’”), the picture functions as a p.c. object lesson in anti-age discrimination. As such, it’s a tale worth telling, along the lines of how Myers’ Something’s Gotta Give served as a gentle rebuke to Hollywood’s double standard of habitually pairing older male stars with younger female ones. Happily, Ben and Jules keep their relationship strictly platonic, though one scene plays for comic panic the possibility a vulnerable Jules might put a move on Ben (and, for the record, he high-tails it from Lavin's five-year-older woman to a ten-year-younger one: Rene Russo as About the Fit’s in-house massage therapist.)
Where Myers has more obvious trouble is in balancing the characters: she fashions Ben as a flawless paragon and Jules as a gifted flibbertigibbet. Jules needn’t necessarily stand for all professional women, but when she meets a time-sensitive professional crisis with wildly unprofessional behavior, letting her personal life take precedence and assigning staffers to solve her problem (while lauding Ben for being an old-school man of character), it’s hard not to feel there’s something regressive about the film’s gender politics. Myers tiptoes through equally sticky terrain with Jules and Matt’s home life.
Add how The Intern semi-anachronistically characterizes a guy who was in his prime in the late-‘60s/early-‘70s as a retro-metrosexual with pocket squares and handkerchiefs, and you realize you’re either going to give up or give in to The Intern’s cheery workplace fantasy and "patronizing" easy answers. Love the actors, and you may love the film: it—and you—are theirs to win or lose.