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The Intern

D: Nancy Meyers / 121m

Cast: Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo, Anders Holm, JoJo Kushner, Andrew Rannells, Adam DeVine, Zack Pearlman, Jason Orley, Christina Scherer, Nat Wolff, Celia Weston, Linda Lavin

Taken at face value, The Intern looks like a movie that you could easily pass by. For one thing it’s a comedy starring Robert De Niro, not exactly the best recommendation a movie could have these days, and secondly, there’s the possibility of a May-December romance between De Niro and Hathaway (and with all due respect to both actors, nobody wants to see that). Look a little closer and it still doesn’t look like a great prospect: it’s about a small internet fashion retailer, built up out of nothing by Hathaway’s determined entrepreneur, and facing an uphill battle to maintain and expand on its initial successes. Then there’s the whole senior intern programme idea that’s bolted onto the basic storyline – and where De Niro’s Ben Whittaker comes in. Sold yet? Maybe not? Then consider this: Hathaway’s character, Jules Ostin, is neglecting her husband and young daughter while she builds her business empire. Sound familiar, maybe overly so? Any guesses as to who helps Jules get her business and private lives back in sync and on track?

If you’re still not sold on The Intern, and this type of comedy (with a smattering of light drama added) still doesn’t appeal, then fair enough, move on to something else. But you’d be making a mistake, because against all the odds, Nancy Meyers’ latest writing/directing gig is deceptively charming and warm-hearted, the movie equivalent of a hug from a loved one. In these days of mega-budget, special effects-laden tributes to the joys of target demographics, The Intern is a refreshing change of pace, a movie that plays out simply and effectively, and not without a degree of style all its own.

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What makes it work so well is Meyers’ well-balanced, and surprisingly intuitive script. Even though the majority of what unfolds has been done before, and will be again (and again), here familiarity breeds contentment, and fosters a relationship between the characters and the audience that allows some of the more sentimental moments to slide by without too much approbation. In short, it’s a joy to watch from its slightly slow beginning to its let’s-wrap-all-this-up-with-a-bow-on-top finish.

By marrying the two ideas – senior citizen with oodles of personal and business experience looking to keep busy, young internet-based company trying to move up to the next level but uncertain how to do it – Meyers has created a movie that looks at how little difference there is in generational thinking when it comes to relationships, and how it’s often true that experience can offer a much simpler solution than seems immediately apparent. At one point, one of Jules’ staff, Jason (DeVine) asks Ben for advice. He’s cheated on his girlfriend, co-worker Becky (Scherer), and hasn’t had much luck getting her to forgive him. Ben’s advice is simple: say sorry to her and do it face-to-face, not via texts. But where some movies might take that advice and have it work straight away, here Meyers is canny enough to make it just the first move in an eventual reconciliation.

So, with Ben’s experience of life and work clearly to his advantage, it’s all down to Jules to realise that it’s to her advantage as well. It doesn’t happen overnight, and along the way Jules makes the kind of mistakes that a lack of experience will bring out. But through it all Ben maintains a patience and a determination not to let things overwhelm or get the better of him that eventually has its effect on the other staff around him. And, of course, along the way, he helps Jules come to realise just how her behaviour and narrow focus on work is contributing to the problems she has both in the office and at home.

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Meyers keeps things light and airy throughout, and her insistence that old age is not a passport to obsolescence is well handled; it’s patently obvious but not rammed down our throats. And the relationship between Ben and Jules is handled so deftly that as it develops and they come to have a mutual respect for each other, there’s not one awkward moment for the viewer where they might suspect Ben and Jules will find themselves in a romantic situation.

De Niro is self-effacing and modest as Ben, always dressed in a suit, always shaving every day (even if he’s not seeing anyone he knows, even on a Sunday), and always ready with the right thing to say. It’s a quiet, mostly internal performance from De Niro, and if he still has a rampant tendency to grimace uncontrollably every time he’s called upon to be embarrassed or uncertain or surprised, it’s strangely effective here even if it is overdone. It’s not a role that was ever likely to tax him as an actor, but he gives a commitment to the part that he hasn’t done in some of his more recent movies (Heist (2015) anyone?).

Matching him for effort and commitment, Hathaway combines vulnerability, fortitude, uncertainty and a blinkered siege mentality with casual ease, and makes Jules an easily recognisable and sympathetic character from the start. It’s the more emotional role (naturally) but she handles it with skill and sensitivity, maintaining a through line that makes her journey from overwhelmed businesswoman to poised, decisive company head all the more credible. It’s worth pointing out again that this is a relatively lightweight movie that provides just enough depth for its characters to avoid being stereotypes, but it’s the themes around age and experience that are more important, and thanks to De Niro and Hathaway’s involvement, Ben and Jules are the kind of unlikely friends that really do crop up in real life.

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And it’s a genuinely funny movie, with the humour arising from the characters and their individual foibles. There’s a sequence where Ben and three other staffers volunteer to break into Jules’ parents’ home to delete a nasty e-mail she’s sent to her mother by mistake, and while it may seem out of place, it allows some of the secondary cast members a chance to impress, and they grab the opportunity with gusto; as a result it’s the funniest part of the movie. Meyers is also good at providing her willing cast with great dialogue, dialogue that doesn’t sound like lines to be acted but which is natural-sounding and far from contrived.

Modestly budgeted at $35m, The Intern has gone on to make nearly $200m at the box office (worldwide), and is a good sign that there’s room for intelligent, adult comedies that don’t rely on gross-out gags and puerile humour to attract audiences. It’s not a movie that will win tons of awards (or gain many nominations), but the fact that it’s been as successful as it has should be counted as a very good sign indeed that audiences know a good movie when they see them.

Rating: 8/10 – above average comedy with something to say about the compatibility between the young and the old, The Intern is charming and, as it progresses, irresistible; De Niro and Hathaway have a great chemistry, but it’s Meyers’ combination of great script and assured direction that makes this movie so enjoyable.