The Intern REVIEW: Script, chemistry woes derail “The Intern”

Despite an immensely talented cast all working hard to be at their most winsome and charming, The Intern fails to impress mainly due to a belabored and heavy-handed script and surprisingly forced performances from a talented cast trying way too hard to be winsome and charming. Cast and crew certainly seem to have the best of intentions here in their efforts to deliver a multi-generational feel-good comedy, and to be sure, the film has its laughs and moments of cuteness — just not enough to mask all that goes fundamentally wrong.

Robert De Niro plays widower and recent retiree Ben Whitaker, who after a four-decade-long career in sales and marketing finds himself restless and unfulfilled without a job to go to every day. He jumps at the chance to apply for a “senior internship program” with an e-commerce start-up based in his native Brooklyn, and after shining during a number of interviews conducted by people a third his age, he earns a spot working for the company’s owner/founder, Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). For Jules, whose passion for her creation drives her to be a part of every single aspect of its day-to-day operation, having to find things for Ben to help with is at first more of a nuisance than a help. She does her best to ignore that he’s even there, but even she begins to notice as Ben impresses everyone — his fellow interns, Jules’s beleaguered assistant Becky (Christina Scherer), and the company’s lovely on-staff masseuse Fiona (Rene Russo) — with his impeccable every day suit-and-tie style, professionalism, good humor, and seemingly tireless work ethic.

Once she makes an effort to actually utilize Ben and the wealth of business and personal wisdom he brings to work with him each day, Jules finds him indispensable as she faces challenges both in the workplace and at home. The two bond and develop trust over just how much work and working the right way is a part of their very identities, but when Ben accidentally discovers something potentially devastating happening in Jules’s world happening during a critical time for her and the company, that new trust is put to a very difficult test.

The Intern one-sheet

The main problem with The Intern as a cohesive film is that it’s not sure what it wants to be, aside from entertaining and validating to the folks over 55 who will be forking over ticket money to see it in theaters this weekend. Despite the vastly disparate ages of her lead actors, writer/director Nancy Meyers (It’s Complicated, Something’s Gotta Give) dramatically structures The Intern as a romantic comedy, with what she wants audiences to feel throughout the film being that these two mismatched people, Ben and Jules, are truly meant for each other, only not in the romantic sense, but in the workplace sense. Put another way, the intent is for audiences to fall in love with the idea of Ben and Jules being each other’s perfect “work-spouse” — they would be the perfect partners, if only the younger, less wise and sensible character would recognize it and embrace it. At least, every plot beat in the film seems to indicate that intent right up until the film’s final minutes, where an ending that completely avoids that expectation and fails to resolve a number of other plot threads developed earlier in the film rather abruptly and unsatisfactorily drops the curtain on the proceedings. It’s almost as if Meyers knew how predictable her plot was from the get-go, and dropped a completely incongruous ending to the story just to say, “Fooled ya!”

Another, even more basic problem here is that The Intern isn’t even consistent as to who its main character is throughout the film. Meyers gets the ball rolling with the narrative focus firmly on De Niro and Ben’s search for a way to fill the void left by both the passing of his wife and the end of his working days. But about midway through the film the focus shifts entirely to Hathaway and her character’s professional and personal crises — indeed, the film’s entire denouement focuses on the resolution of Jules’s problems, and leaves Ben’s personal journey to be clumsily tied up with a cutesy final scene and no definitive conclusion. It all looks and feels like Meyers lost interest in or could find no satisfying answer to the question of how to redefine one’s self after a lifetime of doing so through work, and retreated back to safer, triter territory for this type of film.

Finally, there’s just no escaping the complete lack of chemistry between De Niro and Hathaway from the film’s start to its awkward finish. Despite their considerable talents and charm, their every scene together feels forced, their interactions never transcending a feeling of being directed. The pair are exactly what Jules thinks she and Ben will be at the outset: a poor fit for each other. In comparison, De Niro has a great deal more natural chemistry with his other younger co-stars: his scenes with his fellow interns, played by Adam Devine (Pitch Perfect 2), Zack Pearlman (TV’s “The Inbetweeners“), and Jason Orley, are among the film’s funniest and most genuinely entertaining. Also, the handful of charming scenes the veteran actor shares with Rene Russo might lead you to wonder how much more engaging this film might have been had it focused on their two characters and developed the evolution of their relationship a whole lot more.

And that just leads back once again to the feeling that The Intern really was supposed to be a De Niro vehicle, that it all was supposed to really be about the titular character that he inhabits. Had the production stuck to its premise and De Niro as its focus, then perhaps the film would have turned out to be far more satisfying and impacting, one that even the target audience might have found some inspiration from if Ben’s personal crisis of fulfillment resonated with them in some way. But by making the resolution of that crisis almost an afterthought, a by-product of the fact that Jules’s personal dramas and their resolution take over the film in the third act, the film simply settles for providing a few cute moments and a clear “look how much young people might learn if they just valued their elders and listened to them more” message. And what do seniors have to learn from Millennials, according to The Intern? Well, they sure are helpful when it comes to joining Facebook!

Will that message resonate with the target audience? Sure, it may elicit a chuckle or two. But in this case, that’s just preaching to the choir.

The Intern
Starring Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo, Anders Holm, Andrew Rannells, Adam Devine, Celia Weston, Nat Wolff, Linda Lavin, Zack Pearlman, Jason Orley, and Christina Scherer. Directed by Nancy Meyers.
Running Time: 121 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and brief strong language.

Felix Albuerne
Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.