THE INTERN

The Intern 2

THE INTERN  * * *

Starring Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Anders Holm, Andrew Rannells and Rene Russo. Written and directed by Nancy Meyers. 

There’s a tingly, perhaps unfamiliar sensation that overtakes you roughly fifteen minutes or so into The Intern, and it’s one I’d scarcely remembered. This might be new for you kids, but it’s the realization that Robert De Niro is acting again. And he’s very, very good.

I know, it’s been awhile. I’ve spilled so much ink here, there and everywhere lamenting the past fifteen years or so during which this icon of my youth – posters of whom adorned pretty much every dorm room or apartment wall of anywhere I’ve ever lived — has been phoning in lazy, half-assed performances roughly timed to the end of every financial quarter, presumably to support his real estate enterprises. (Why else would the star of Raging Bull play second banana to 50 Cent in DTV fodder like Freelancers?) But I guess business must be good or maybe Bobby just got tired of holding the receiver or something, because for the first time in far too long, De Niro is wonderful in The Intern.

Writer-director Nancy Meyers’ cozy wish-fulfillment fantasy is a good deal more thoughtful and sophisticated than it may seem in synopsis, which admittedly does not promise much. De Niro stars as Ben Whitaker, a lonely widower having a tough time with retirement. He’s done with traveling and has had enough golf already, so Ben rather impulsively signs up for a “Senior Internship” program at a booming startup in his suddenly fashionable Red Hook, Brooklyn neighborhood.

He’s assigned to assist Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), the overwhelmed SEO of an abruptly exploding e-commerce clothing business. She started this all as a lark and is having an awfully hard time transitioning to managing two hundred or so employees — especially since Jules cares so much she still takes customer service calls and sometimes jumps onto the line to help out at the packing plant. She’s a micro-manager with the best of intentions.

In fact, everyone here has the best of intentions, which is what makes The Intern so different from other crass comedies we see these days. It has a gentle spirit, and is about people who are decent. There’s not a lot of conflict, but we root for these characters because we enjoy spending time with them.

De Niro ignores the casual dress code at the office, wearing a suit every day “because it makes me feel comfortable.” Surrounded by slacker twenty-something tech-bros, he admits that he shaves even on weekends and carries around a briefcase from the 1960’s. His Ben Whitaker spent forty years running a business that printed phone books – a note of obsolescence played not for laughs here. He’s a smart guy, and still has something to contribute.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen De Niro like this before, playing such a sweet, uncomplicated man. The considerable pleasure of the film lies in Hathaway’s scatterbrained exec warming up to his company, and Meyers dials back for some long, lovely scenes in which we just sit back and watch these two become pals.

Hathaway’s great, by the way. I’m not sure when the Internet decided that we’re all supposed to be mean to her but I’m not down with it. (Everyone seemed to get so angry at her for acting like she wanted an Oscar that she deserved, instead of just falling down the stairs all the time like Jennifer Lawrence.)  This is such a cute culture-clash friendship, in a movie so luxuriantly paced we can relax while the two of them knock back a couple beers after work as she helps him set up a Facebook page. It’s incredibly endearing.

There’s not much conflict to be found in The Intern. The VC investors want Hathaway to surrender the company to a more experienced CEO, and maybe if she does that it might free up some time at home to cure her hubby’s wandering eye. But De Niro knows her better than that. Hell, he idolizes her. And he’s not gonna let her get away with selling herself short.

I really enjoy most Nancy Meyers movies and have re-watched Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated on cable far more times than I should probably admit. She gets a bad rap from male critics about her lush, luxury-porn interior design, as if we’re all not fine when Michael Mann does the same thing for dudes. (Meryl Streep’s kitchen = Sonny Crockett’s car. Please discuss, boys.)

The Intern stumbles with a couple of slapstick sequences, the most egregious being a self-contained set-piece out of another movie altogether during which De Niro and crew need to break into Hathaway’s mother’s house for reasons I’m too embarrassed to even explain here.

But you know, I really liked these characters. I liked the fact that De Niro’s old-school patriarch isn’t here to correct Hathaway, nor to ride in and save the day at the last minute. He just admires her an awful lot and wants to be in her corner. I liked how there are no villains in this movie, and how everyone is just sorta flawed and they all live happily ever after in beautiful, unaffordable apartments.

And I loved seeing Robert De Niro giving a real performance again.

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