There’s a cliché in American movies and television known as “Hollywood parking.” You know the drill. Middle of New York City. Hero drives up to some swanky spot and parallel parks in front of the door. It’s the kind of thing that never actually happens if you are not in a movie. It’s the kind of falsity we take for granted when we are watching.
Nancy Meyers’ latest movie The Intern may be the definitive Hollywood parking movie. It is so sweet and pleasant that I hate to say anything nasty about it. So I won’t. Until the seventh paragraph.
The high concept comedy has a 70 year old retiree/widower by the name of Ben Whitaker apply for a “senior internship” at a youth-centric on-line clothing concern. Ben has grown bored with his golden years and longs for someplace to go every day. He is assigned to be the personal assistant to the company’s founder and supreme ruler, Jules Ostin, a young mother of boundless energy and passion, who has built her dream empire into one of the hottest net-based businesses around. This has put stress on Jules’ marriage as she continually multi-tasks, and her lack of business credentials has her investors clamouring for her to engage an experienced CEO to help manage this rocket ship. Jules knows this CEO might really help both at About The Fit (her company) and at home.
That’s it for plot summary. That’s really all you need to know. You can probably guess that Ben’s life lessons will come in handy and Jules will make the right decision in the end. SPOILER ALERT: they do and she does.
Meyers has been among the most successful female triple threats (Producer/Director/Writer) in Hollywood over the past couple of decades. With movies like Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated on her resume, she stands as one of the few filmmakers (regardless of gender) to make intelligent, witty comedies about older baby boomers. The Intern is also intelligent and witty. It is refreshing to see that, though there is sexual and romantic tension throughout, this is not really a “romantic” comedy. It is about personal fulfilment. Jules and Ben have a very intimate relationship, but it never really drifts anywhere near sexual. Given that Ben is about twice Jules’ age, that might not seem like a real danger. But I do wonder what would have happened had a man been put in charge of the project. Especially an older man.
But a man wasn’t in charge. Perhaps that accounts for why Ben, as played by Robert De Niro, may be the most ideal XY character in the history of film. He is kind and smart. He is protective in a behind-the-scenes manner. He dresses like an old-school model and he always has a handkerchief handy. Most importantly, he supports Jules unquestioningly, and offers advice without ever challenging her. De Niro does this very well. The more he has acted in comedies, the more relaxed and less mannered he has become. This is the actor at his most easy-going, and it is a pleasure to behold.
As Jules, Anne Hathaway does really well – for the first half of the movie. She captures Jules’ vibrancy and neuroses. She can be overbearing and funny at the same time. In the second half, pressure both at work and at home conspire to make Jules begin to break down, and Hathaway has to be on the verge of tears a little too often. It begins to feel like a movie at that point, and her performance, which had seemed so natural, takes on a tinge of artifice.
But acting is not the problem with The Intern. The problem is that this story and these people do not appear to live in a world I have ever seen. When bad things happen, no one ever has a nasty word to say. No one ever loses their smile for more than the briefest of moments. (Perhaps that is the way Meyers sees the world of 20-somethings, because there is one marvellous vignette in which Ben shows up at a funeral with a somewhat younger woman on his arm, and Linda Lavin, one of Ben’s contemporaries who has been angling for a second date with him, promptly flips him the bird. It is the most real moment in the movie.)
I’ll offer one example, because I think it sums up the movie’s biggest failing. Somewhere in the middle, Jules has become bothered by the sloppy manner in which the clothing she sells has been packed into boxes for shipping. So she pays a visit to the warehouse. Ignoring for now the fact that this warehouse is conveniently located in New York City, and not in a low rent factory-style complex in middle America, what I found most unbelievable about this scene is that Jules demonstrates the proper packing technique to a group of four ethnically-diverse, age-varying, SMILING women. That’s right. The boss comes down to tell you that you are doing a half-assed job and the factory grunts laugh and smile with her. That is a tiny moment in the movie, but it has a falseness that towers.
This kind of thing permeates the rest of the story, with everyone always knowing just what to do or say, and no one really losing control. Everything works out so nicely. Everyone can park their cars. Ben even gets a nice age–appropriate (i.e., 15 years younger than him) company masseuse who looks an awful lot like Rene Russo to fall into his bed. It’s just so cute. Hell, Jules even vomits cute.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you may know there is a moment in which Jules laments the current state of the male gender. She compares the chivalrous Ben to the slovenly goofballs working for her (pleasantly played by Adam Devine, Zack Pearlman, and Jason Orley) and asks how men could have gone in one generation from Harrison Ford to these untucked dudes. This obviously ignores several generations sandwiched in between. That recognition would complicate things. And The Intern, for all its modern woman angst, never addresses messy complications. It never tells you what to do when you are running late for a meeting – when you have been circling the block for an hour and there is just no parking to be found.