Film review: ‘The Intern’ and the dilemma of having it all

Film review: ‘The Intern’ and the dilemma of having it all

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Director Nancy Meyers’ May-December corporate comedy, starring Robert DeNiro and Anne Hathaway, loses its narrative point of view.

Anne Hathaway and Robert DeNiro star in "The Intern." (Screen grab from trailer, courtesy Waverly Films)

WASHINGTON, Nov. 2, 2015 – When it comes to discussing the working woman, 2015 edition, there is one trope in television and film that pops up time again. That’s the question of whether a woman can actually have it all, “all” being the catchall term for career, family, social life, whatever any normal person juggles in real life to varying degrees.

In Tinseltown, this has become one of the key points that defines whether a woman is either the focal point of any given film. It’s certainly a key dilemma that’s grabbed the attention of Nancy Meyers, director of the quirky new movie “The Intern.”

The film pivots early on to become a character study of Anne Hathaway’s Jules Ostin, the 30-something CEO of a rapidly growing e-commerce fashion company called “About the Fit.” Jules first appears in the film as the stereotypical (in films anyway), quirky young CEO.

We figure this out right away as we watch her threading her way through the company’s bullpen-style office on her bike. That’s our cue: she’s a “modern” woman in some pretty cloying ways. But this is about to change, or we wouldn’t have much of a film.

While Jules becomes the focal point of the story, she isn’t necessarily the main character: that’s Robert De Niro’s retired-but-really-bored ex-exec, 70-year-old Ben Whittaker.

The unusual plot twist here is Jules’ idea of hiring a senior citizen as an intern instead of some green college kid. Do age and wisdom trump youth and eagerness? Looks like we’re about to find out. And in the process, Ben quickly becomes Meyers’ second focal point in this film, and a narrative problem is born.

DeNiro’s Ben, a widower of several years, is a retired manager of company that made phonebooks. (Remember them?) At this point in his life, he’s not really looking for anything significant to happen. But without the stimulation of a 9-to-5 routine, and with his kids now living in other parts of the country, he finds himself lonely and at loose ends. He’s simply bored as his world is changing around him but without him. He’s on his own, his contemporaries are passing away and he’s trying to cope with this change.

That’s why Ben decides to interview for “About the Fit’s” new senior internship program, a decision that sets him on a collision course with Jules and her own life and times, because, as it turns out, he is hired to become her intern.

Remaining an active part of society in this country in one’s “golden years” has always been an interesting and controversial topic. It’s interesting here, too, but not conventionally so, considering director Meyer’s rather weightless narrative drive.

Aside from being bored and a bit lonely, Ben doesn’t really have any significant obstacles in his life. He’s certainly not angry with the world for taking away his wife and friends, and he really doesn’t have any trouble with adapting to the basics of life as they’ve evolved in our times. As a character, he’s kind of boring, which, in its own way, is kind of refreshing.

As a guy who’s essentially content with his lot in life—aside from those aforementioned regrets—and who never has his world view significantly challenged, Ben literally faces no obstacles in this movie. Or, maybe only a few, like trying to figure out if he can help the people around him or tell a woman around his age he isn’t interested in romance. Ben exists as Ben in this film in a totally non-judgmental way, but with a faint, knowing smirk on his face.

If “The Intern” were just about Ben’s journey through the latter years of his life, it would be totally unwatchable after about the first 15 minutes. But the movie isn’t really about Ben despite the title and the opening focus. The very second Ben enters the office and sees Jules for the first time, the movie is about Jules.

Nancy Meyers is closer in age to Robert de Niro’s Ben than just about anyone else in the film’s largely youthful cast, leading to an odd but sympathetic take on her characters. But most of her focus is still on Jules. She’s first presented as the quirky, faux-individualist millennial who’s launched thousands of think-pieces wallowing in the lives of anyone living in or operating out of currently trendy Brooklyn. But what really kicks off much of her internal drama is the fact she is both a wife and mother, too.

In and of itself, this stunning revelation isn’t a negative thing. But the way it’s presented to the audience assumes that they’ll experience this news as some kind of shock, even though this side of Jules is first filtered through the eyes of Ben. His vague preconceptions concerning his new boss face an abrupt readjustment when he sees her greeted by her husband and daughter.

The narrative problem here is that every bit of information the audience learns is seen through the eyes of Ben. This has the unintentional effect of cutting off Jules’ character development at the knees. It’s not that she doesn’t have agency. Everything that happens to her in the movie’s third act refutes that idea. But it does make her a bit of a bystander in the unfolding story, even though it’s her movie.

Perhaps this is Meyers’ way of gradually telling us that Jules does in fact have it all, that mythological “goal” of every fictional working woman. We learn her company is beyond successful largely as a result of her hands-on approach and her unique vision. At the same time, we learn she has an adoring family, a relationship that seems healthy on the surface. Of course, we also gradually witness the tensions that begin to tear this family relationship apart. But Meyers approaches these problems through Ben as an outsider, an observer.

As a character, Jules is presented with considerable sympathy, given that Meyers could easily have turned her into that obnoxious, narcissistic caricature of what the average baby boomer views as a typical millennial. But we’re manipulated into this point of view not through our own observation and intuition, but through the eyes of our boomer intern, Ben.

Ben does the visualizing rather than the camera, which has us viewing the biggest twist at the beginning of the third act—one that puts Jules’ marriage turmoil at the forefront—through eyes other than our own.

It’s a kind of voyeurism, which becomes an even bigger issue with this film since the director is trying to have things both ways. While the audience is getting most of its information through what Ben sees, the film’s narrative suddenly shifts to a first-hand account of what Jules is experiencing. It becomes rather jarring.

Most problematic are the scenes involving an attempt to take control of the company away from Jules and give it to a “more seasoned” CEO. These problems have direct emotional resonance for Jules as she struggles with finding the right CEO, which includes personally interviewing each candidate.

This is one of the bigger missteps in the film, illustrating the narrative weakness of having Ben as the central point of view. As the film builds to a climax, and as all of the potential CEO candidates—all men—are lined up for Jules to interview, the audience never gets to see any of these crucial one-on-one interactions. Instead Jules relates to Ben, second hand, just how they didn’t work for the company or for her and how wearing on her the entire process was.

To fully understand Jules’ real character, her real inner strengths, it was crucial to see how she conducted herself in this pressure-filled situation. It would be understandable to think we might finally glimpse a point where our wunderkind entrepreneur would discover she’s way in over her young executive head. Or not. But that doesn’t happen.

Granted, the audience is privy to how she interacts with her peer group employees and how the company runs smoothly with her at the helm. But it would have been equally important to see how she handled herself with those outsiders she feels are interlopers, given that retaining her company’s spirit and ideals lie at the core of the entire film. But again, we only see this through the eyes of Ben.

This point of view failure is the major flaw in this film. It seems as if Meyers wants to focus a film on a successful young businesswoman who can also successfully raise and be there for her family. But she’s equally interested in how older individuals continue their lives after society has old them they aren’t of use anymore. Both are strong narrative themes.

But Meyers fully commits to neither. While she has the characters, actors and beats all in place, she doesn’t seem to be comfortable focusing solely on Jules, fleshing out Ben’s life more or even treating Ben like the Mary Poppins he so desperately wants to be. These are storytelling flaws that “The Intern” is never quite able to overcome.

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