As a director, Nancy Meyers's style is almost aggressively plain and unobtrusive, yet there's no mistaking her films for anyone else's. Known for her attention to detail when it comes to dressing her sets, she makes movies that sometimes feel more like tasteful home decor catalogs than motion pictures, and typically revolve around low-conflict plots about the trials and tribulations of being an affluent, white Baby Boomer. They're the type of films you find yourself describing as "charming" and "pleasant." Meyers's latest, "The Intern," is a gentle fable of gender and generational politics, and is, well, perfectly charming in its low-key sort of way.
Anne Hathaway plays young go-getter Jules Ostin, the founder of Brooklyn-based online clothing retailer About the Fit. The website's massive success has come faster than anyone expected, and now she's getting pressure from her investors to bring on an experienced CEO to oversee the business. An overworked, struggling-to-have-it-all type, Jules has so much on her plate she even forgets that she's approved the creation of a senior internship program until the day it's set to begin.
Enter Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro), a 70-year-old widower who returns to the workforce not out of necessity (which would have been more realistic) but out of boredom. He misses the hustle and bustle of a job, along with the sense of purpose it provides. An old school man's man, he arrives at the office in suit and tie, and he shows the hip, tech-savvy whippersnappers how it's done. His competence, affability, and loyalty quickly make him indispensable around the office and to Jules as he's assigned to be her assistant, eventually adding personal driver and mentor to his list of duties. He even has time to start up a romance with the office's house masseuse (Rene Russo, quite good but without much to do. She's also a decade younger than De Niro, but in Hollywood years, I suppose that's close enough).
Even in kindly grandfather mode, De Niro is much too sharp to play the clueless old man, so we're thankfully spared any bumbling geriatric humor. If anything, the script veers too much the other way; Ben often seems too good to be true. But then, Meyers's films are always at least 50 percent fantasy, so I suppose that's in keeping with things. De Niro has fun joking around with his young male office-mates (played by Adam DeVine, Zack Pearlman, and Jason Orley; all likeable and seemingly thrilled to be sharing the screen with a legend like De Niro), while he and Hathaway share an appealing chemistry that makes their eventual friendship easy to buy. Here I'll put your fears to rest and assure you that their relationship remains an entirely platonic one.
Meyers has her own, somewhat old-fashioned worldview and injects it into her films even when it doesn't suit her story. You can often hear her opinions coming out of her characters mouths. When Jules expresses dismay over the decline of the type of masculinity represented by pinnacles of manhood like Harrison Ford and Jack Nicholson, it feels exactly like something a woman in her mid-60's might say.
Everything takes place in and around the plush houses and office settings Meyers's character inhabit. Impeccably decorated interiors are what Meyers films have become known for, and Kristi Zea's immaculate production design doesn't disappoint. The film's light, breezy vibe is in keeping with the luxurious tone set by the decor, and the script tackles incidents as they come along. There's a mid-movie comedic heist sequence that feels as though it was beamed in from a different -- much zanier -- film, but I didn't mind; it breaks up the constant speechifying the characters tend to engage in as the film goes on. There's also a subplot involving Jules's marital issues with her stay-at-home-dad husband (Anders Holm), that's completely unnecessary but deserves credit for being handled in a way that's refreshingly adult. By the end, every plotline gets wrapped up neatly, as they must in films of this type.
On some level, the advice Ben dispenses to Jules can be taken as mansplaining, though it doesn't come across as condescending and the film never suggests that Jules should feel badly for spending so much time with her work, even when it limits her time acting as wife and mother. That alone seems somewhat progressive, far removed from the messages we typically see espoused by workplace-centered romantic comedies. Still, it's frustrating that Meyers feels that a successful, independent woman like Jules -- who single-handedly built her own company -- would even need those sort of pep talk in the first place.