De Niro shines, Hathaway fizzles in “The Intern”

Ben Whittaker is a try-hard. The type of guy who owns a rotating necktie display in his closet, sets two alarms on his old-school alarm clocks and who at 70 years-old decides the retired life of senior cruises, yoga in the park and Rosetta Stone just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But luckily for try-hard Ben (Robert De Niro) the online fashion startup About The Fit is looking for interns – senior interns.

Ben jumps at the chance to get back in the working game (even uploading a video cover letter to YouTube with the technological expertise of his nine year-old grandson), nailing the interview and scoring the coveted internship. We never expected anything less from this former manager of a phone book company who just couldn’t keep his toes out of the corporate world. But where we went wrong is expecting more from director Nancy Meyers’ “The Intern,” a film that tries too hard to be clever, heartfelt and relevant – delivering a few laughs for the oldsters in the audience, but ultimately falling flat when it really counts.

Long on jokes about the elderly’s ineptness with technology and short on spontaneity, the whole 121-minute affair feels a bit overworked. It all starts with the perfectly coiffed, biking-around-the-office, taking-customer-service-calls-even-though-that’s-beneath-her-pay-grade, CEO and founder of About The Fit Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). This is far from the bumbling magazine newbie turned fashion editor in training of Hathaway’s “The Devil Wears Prada.” There she was likeably, believably awkward. Here she’s trying way too hard to be Meryl Streep’s overconfident and icy Miranda Priestly character, coupled with a touch of homecoming queen bubbliness to thaw the above-it-all attitude. Hathaway is noticeably torn between being nice and being powerful. In the scramble she loses on both fronts.

De Niro’s performance is the opposite – he’s realistically sweet and funny, but the genuine nice guy-ness is lost amidst a lackluster script (Meyers receives writing along with directorial credits here) that flat lines the performance. He’s believable, but that in itself is unfortunately too by-the-book. The same dialogue woes plague Hathaway. Ostin frequently ends her long, anecdotal tirades to coworkers with “you know what I mean?” – asking, almost pleading with the audience to forgive her for the glass box of predictability the overly contrived screen writing has left her trapped within.

That’s not to say all of “The Intern” feels like something you’ve seen before. Hidden beneath the fluff of Millennial-Baby Boomer banter is the timely issue of women forced to balance their work and personal lives, a challenge Ostin handles directly when faced with the prospect of being booted out of her boss-lady position by a more experienced CEO. But although the plight of working women is increasingly relevant to the Lean-In era, that relevance doesn’t always equate to poignancy. Once again the film falls into the realm of stereotype, casting Ostin’s husband, Matt (Anders Holm), as the typical stay at home dad to her workaholic wife who can’t stay up past 10 to have “grownup talk” or do other grownup activities, while the stereotypically catty stay at home moms lurk at Ostin’s daughter’s school, mocking her lackluster guacamole-making skills. The working-mom storyline couldn’t be more cookie-cutter clichéd if Sheryl Sandberg had penned it herself. Ultimately all these high hopes of female empowerment culminate in just another predictable ending, disappointing all the true feminists out there.

The unlikely chemistry between De Niro and Hathaway and the sarcastic generational gap repartee that goes along with it is one of the film’s main, if only, highlights. He thinks she’s condescending and she thinks he’s annoyingly helpful, but a few noble gestures (he cleans up the office junk table she’s constantly cringing at) and late night at the office pizza-eating montages later, Ben and Jules are practically besties. Where “The Intern” goes wrong is in not letting this unlikely friendship shine. Instead the film decides to let its working-mom issues dominate the action, relegating De Niro and Hathaway’s budding friendship to second place.

The best moments of the film come towards the end when Ostin and Ben find themselves in a hotel room together contemplating what has turned into a rather unlikely friendship (despite its understudy status). Here Hathaway finally waxes vulnerable, letting a little light crack through her well-built façade of perennial people-pleaser, sharing room service with Ben as they both fall asleep to “Singing in the Rain.” It’s an uncontrived and unforced moment, just as it should be. But unfortunately this film about one senior citizen’s step back into the modern working world isn’t always this way. Instead it too often aims to please through tacky humor and lofty idealism, substituting genuine hard work in favor of becoming an annoying try-hard – kind of like an intern.

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