Friday, September 25, 2015

The Intern Fails To Sell.

The Good: Decent acting, Good direction, Good casting choices
The Bad: Painfully troubling plot and character moments, Pacing
The Basics: Anyone hoping for a one-two punch of Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway is likely to be disappointed by how they are utilized in The Intern.

Whenever I review a film that stars Anne Hathaway, I worry that I am being too soft on the film based on my appreciation of Anne Hathaway as an actress and activist. There are few actors who sell me on a project simply by their presence in it (writers and directors tend to impress me more; without quality in their departments, it doesn't matter who the players are!), but Anne Hathaway is definitely one who I shell out money to see whenever she opens a movie. In the case of The Intern, I actually considered spending the $1500 (plus travel expenses) that it would have cost to get into the New York Premiere for the film on the hopes of rubbing elbows with Hathaway. After spending the day out at the nearest theater playing it, 40 miles away, I'm glad that I did not spend more on The Intern.

The Intern is the latest dramedy by Nancy Meyers, whose last film It's Complicated (reviewed here!) was brilliant and incredibly well-executed. At this point in her career, Nancy Meyers can do whatever she wants and it is easy to see why Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo and the rest of the cast was excited to work with her. Nancy Meyers is a legend, but The Intern makes the argument well that when some people get to "legendary" status, people do not have the heart to tell them when their projects are dramatically less-than what they have produced before.

The Intern does not suck, but watching it was a joyless experience, one packed with so much "stuff," and one that confounds the viewer with its glaring plot and character problems. Or, perhaps, Nancy Meyers really is writing for all the stupid people out there; I was somewhat surprised when Jules's (the character played by Hathaway) husband appeared on screen and the people in the theater I was in gasped - Meyers showed Jules's ringed left hand prominently on screen at least three times before Matt appeared. But, given that Meyers has a history of writing smart, complicated characters and situations, I think it is reasonable to expect that The Intern would be smart. Alas, it is not.

Ben Whittaker is a widower who has been on his own for years and at age 70 feels like he has done everything. Searching for a purpose in life, he applies to be a Senior Intern at About The Fit, an online clothing store. Despite her protestations, the head of the company, Jules Ostin, takes Whittaker on as her own intern. After spending a time at ATF not being utilized, Ben starts to pick up random slack around the crowded office and make an impression on his coworkers. When he sees Mike, Jules's driver, drinking during the work day, he replaces Mike and begins to integrate himself more and more into Jules's life.

Jules is under a tremendous amount of stress. Cameron, who initiated the Senior Intern Program, has advised Jules that the investors in ATF are getting wary at the pace at which the company is moving and they want Jules to bring on a CEO. Not eager to make someone else her boss, Jules very reluctantly begins to take interviews for the CEO position. At the same time, Jules's marriage to Matt - who was in a similar field and was more successful, but became a stay-at-home-dad when Jules gave birth to Paige - is strained. While Jules tries to juggle her personal and professional lives, she comes to rely on Ben more and more for guidance, while he finds purpose as her trusted adviser.

First, what's good. Nancy Meyers captures very well the sense of discontent and loss for a man who was happily married for forty-two years and then lost both his wife and his career (Whittaker was in the phone book publication business!). The Intern begins with an almost crushing sense of mood and when Whittaker is put off on his first day until 3:55 to meet the person he is interning with, the sense that his life has become useless is pounded home. Meyers does a decent job of instantly characterizing Whittaker as a man who truly has a need to be back in the workforce to derive a sense of purpose. And Robert De Niro does a fine job of portraying that. Similarly, Anne Hathaway manages to find the right balance for Jules between strong and efficient and vulnerable and human.

The problem is that the film tries to pack so much more in and one has to neglect some pretty huge problems to make the characters truly seem realistic or workable. At the top of the list is Jules. To buy Jules and the radical take-off of ATF one has to buy the vastly understated premise that eighteen months before the film began, Jules was not throwing all of the energy and focus she had into raising Paige. What?! Jules is devoted, focused, and a micromanager. Her company is relatively new and while I am not at all an expert on children, Paige is ridiculously young - like Pre-school age. While The Intern pays lip service to the idea that Matt was immensely successful in his field and gave it up so Jules could follow her dream and that Jules had the whole idea that women coming home to a bottle of wine each night could be a goldmine for online shopping . . . the film never lands the idea that shortly after getting Paige acclimated to life, Jules abandons her routine and launches a company. So, there's no mention of what Jules was doing before Paige, but somehow she became - essentially - a CEO of a start-up at a time when her husband was rocking the field and their daughter was at a pretty vulnerable age. Jules's motivation is unclear; she clearly cares about her business, but it's not clear why she had a child or, having had the child, why she ever started the business (she's a micromanager and having not been a business manager prior to Paige's birth, it seems like she would have just micromanaged the hell out of her daughter).

Jules is not the CEO, but she is running her own start-up. Cameron is introduced as, essentially, her consigliere and the assumption is that he is her CFO. But Cameron is way too familiar with Jules. Jules is a woman in authority and the way Cameron puts his hands on her in one of their first scenes was tremendously inappropriate for an employee. There might be some subtext that Cameron is supposed to be gay, but that doesn't actually excuse the familiarity he shows her.

That leads to the big conceptual problem with The Intern. Jules is not a very good business manager and Cameron is not a very good consigliere. Jules clearly wants to do right by her employees, but she micromanages every aspect of the business. The unseen investors are absolutely right to fear the way Jules is running ATF; she is on a trajectory to burn out because she does not delegate. But Cameron gives her terrible advice in asking her to take interviews for a potential CEO. Writer and director Nancy Meyers is working under a very old paradigm and does not understand well how the tech start-ups have changed the landscape of the business world. Tech start-ups have made a lot of people very powerful and put them in positions from which they will not advance - there are a number of company Founders and CEOs that have incredible staffs that, by the sheer fact of numbers, cannot all advance to the top of the company. Jules, who is supposed to be strong and independent and smart, takes the advice by Cameron to take the most passive possible approach on hiring a CEO; take interviews from interested people (I believe all of the referenced candidates were men). Jules resents having to do this and her character is gutted as a result.

Meyers set up a very realistic problem and then pursued the least character-driven solution for it. Strong, independent, and smart businesspeople in Jules's position do not wait for the phone to ring; they find people they admire and woo them to their company. Jules would have been so much stronger and not a pouty wuss had she looked around at The Industry and found someone whose accomplishments she admired and then wooed them to become the CEO. Or, on par with that, she would have approached them to mentor her to become the CEO the company needed to assuage the investors.

In this way, Robert De Niro's Ben Whittaker is dramatically misused in The Intern. Whittaker has a wealth of experience in business and Jules quickly comes to rely on him. . . to drive her around, to clean up a junk desk, and to listen to her problems without really judging them. Outside a charming scene near the film's end where Whittaker reveals just how intimately he knows the ATF building, Jules fails to grasp just what an asset Whittaker could be to grooming her to be a CEO. Perhaps, The Intern would have been more obviously a woman-empowering story had De Niro's part been cast by a woman. Then, of course, the structural problem would have existed; how did Jules fail to recognize such an experienced talent (sad to say there are only so many seventy year-old women who had the profound level of executive experience Whittaker had).

As it is, Whittaker is plagued by other structural character problems that make it hard to buy his character. The audience is supposed to instantly love how classic he is and how mature . . . but he doesn't have the wherewithal to tell Patty he is not interested in her?! How up front is that? Moreover, Whittaker has not truly moved on from the death of his wife, but that does not stop him from heading into a relationship with Rene Russo's Fiona (the company messeuse). For all the shit male directors take about how women are used in movies, it's not winning Meyers any points that De Niro's Whittaker rejects the nurturing, non-Hollywood beautiful Patty (played by Linda Lavin) in favor of Russo, who by most objective standards is smoking-hot in The Intern. Patty's purpose in the film seems to be to make it clear that someone as great at Robert De Niro's Whittaker is not going unnoticed by his peers, he's just not interested. (Very sarcastically) Kudos to Meyers to having Whittaker show interest in the first woman to give him an erection in years!

Finally, as a trendsetter, it seems odd that Jules would idolize Whittaker and his generation. Jules laments how the current generation is not classy like Harrison Ford . . . but she relies almost entirely upon the talents of a workforce that realized they did not have to look like Ford to be substantive and great. And given how shittastic the economy is now, wouldn't the bulk of Jules's investors be in Whittaker's age bracket?! Shouldn't she resent those who have it all together financially for pushing her in this direction she is loathe to go instead of bemoaning that her employees - who make her dream into a working reality! - do not have the "class" of Harrison Ford?!

Ultimately, after one gets through the oppressive and somewhat overstated beginning, they get into a few gem scenes and a whole vast ocean of plot and character problems that are realized simply by scratching the surface with a critical lens.

For other works with Anders Holmes, please check out my reviews of:
The Interview
Inherent Vice
Arrested Development - Season 4
Workaholics - Season 1


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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