Friday, September 25, 2015

The Intern: Definitely worth hiring

The Intern (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for suggestive content and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.25.15

I love it when a sharp, savvy script converges with a talented cast able to give every line just the right reading.

Entrusted with a rather unusual "secret mission," Ben (Robert De Niro, far right) and his new
acolytes — from left, Jason (Adam DeVine), Davis (Zack Pearlman) and Lewis (Jason
Orley) — rush to their destination while discussing optimal approaches to this
challenging assignment.
Writer/director Nancy Meyers has built a career on cleverly sculpted romantic comedies that are smart and funny, while — here’s the best part — displaying subtle streaks of social commentary. Her best films have poked amiable fun at sexism, ageism and the gender divide, while simultaneously giving us utterly adorable, can’t-miss characters.

Meyers also has a knack for attracting top talent, whether in Something’s Gotta Give (Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton), It’s Complicated (Meryl Streep, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin) or the shamefully underrated The Holiday (Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Cameron Diaz and Jack Black).

Yes, Meyers’ films often veer dangerously close to sloppy sentimentality, but she unerringly stays on the right side of that line. She’s one of very few contemporary directors with an eye and ear for what made Hollywood’s Golden Age romantic comedies work so well, while simultaneously concocting stories — and droll situations — that are very much Here And Now.

Her newest effort, The Intern, is the best yet: a charming premise that brings the best from stars Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway. And, as also is the case with a Nancy Meyers film, she pays equal attention to all the supporting roles — even the smallest walk-ons — granting us a rich and thoroughly entertaining tableau.

You’ll have so much fun, that you may not realize how cleverly Meyers inserts some gentle life lessons.

Ben Whittaker (De Niro), 70 years old and a widower, is finding retirement less than ideal. He has done all the traditional things — traveling, exercising, taking classes — but finds them ephemeral and unfulfilling. He’s lonely but not desperate, restless but not depressed. He just needs to feel needed.

He therefore leaps at an opportunity to apply for a “senior internship program” at a rapidly expanding e-commerce start-up called About the Fit (ATF). The Brooklyn-based fashion outfit is run by its founder, Jules Ostin (Hathaway), a perky, personable ball of fire who tries to be everywhere at once. She’s the micro-managing heart and soul of her company, and the entire staff adores her ... while exchanging knowing glances about the boss’ reluctance to delegate, or her inability to be on time for even the most important meetings.

The internship program is a precautionary move orchestrated by Jules’ COO, Cameron (Andrew Rannells), as a means of avoiding a possible age-discrimination lawsuit. (The entire 200-plus ATF staff seems fresh out of college.) Ben, an old-school gentleman who always puts his best foot forward, naturally gets accepted ... but not until he survives a droll application process that flusters twentysomething interviewers who lack the ability to modulate their questions to the older man facing them. (“So ... where do you see yourself in 10 years?”)

Ben endures all unintended slights with graciousness and poise: a model of calm, amiable courtesy that I can’t help feeling is Meyers’ subtle jab at a modern world that has become increasingly rude and cranky. It’s a wonderful role for De Niro, and a welcome relief from the broader, farcical turns he has delivered during this latter stage in his career. He’s like the perfect uncle we’d all wish to have in the family.

Perhaps as a bit of mischief, perhaps through shrewd judgment, Cameron assigns Ben to Jules. She seems the worst possible choice, having no time at all for showing an out-of-touch newbie the ropes (particularly one who barely knows how to function on a laptop). Indeed, their get-acquainted meeting is scheduled between 3:55 and 4 p.m.; Ben, accurately reading the tea leaves, takes only two minutes and cheerfully returns to his desk.

But Ben is patient and persistent; he impresses while not being obvious about it. Without being asked, he always remains in the office until Jules leaves, often well past the dinner hour. He becomes the staff darling, initially as little more than a quaint mascot, but soon as the confident, well educated and highly experienced guru who has taken full advantage of a life well lived.

His very presence alters the dynamic.

The office environment quickly provides Ben with a multiplicity of new friends and acquaintances. He bonds with tech-savvy younger interns Lewis (Jason Orley) and Davis (Zack Pearlman); and Jason (Adam DeVine), the ATF staffer in charge of all interns.

Davis, in particular, is in desperate need of a father-figure; he’s a 14-year-old dropped into a 26-year-old’s body, lacking even the slightest awareness of navigating the real world. One wonders how he dresses and feeds himself each morning. But Pearlman makes him endearingly scruffy: a lost puppy lucky enough to have found a kind-hearted keeper.

Then there’s Becky (Christina Scherer), Jules’ eternally flustered and hopelessly overwhelmed assistant: an adorably agitated young woman who lives in terror of disappointing the boss. The truth of the matter is that Becky does excellent (if disorganized) work, and believes herself inadequate solely because she’s never acknowledged by the forever distracted Jules.

Cameron, as well, has hidden depths. The extremely talented Rannells — a Tony-nominated Broadway veteran of The Book of Mormon, Hairspray and Jersey Boys, along with TV shows such as Girls and The New Normal — makes ATF’s COO something of a sly, impish Yoda, whose indulgent smile and perceptive gaze bespeak a long association with Jules (well, as long as any of these kids can have known each other).

Ben also discovers an unexpected ally: ATF’s in-house masseuse, Fiona, played with sultry charm by Rene Russo. Her first scene with De Niro is hilarious, particularly with Lewis and Davis reacting from either side of Ben’s work station.

But wait: There’s more. Jules turns out to be married, with husband Matt (Anders Holm) playing “Mr. Mom” to their precocious young daughter, Paige (adorable JoJo Kushner, making an impressive big-screen debut).

Linda Lavin and Celia Weston, finally, make the most of their brief appearances.

And although the film’s overall tone is light, the storyline gets its dramatic heft from recognizable real-world problems. Jules is being pressured by her company’s nervous investors, who believe that hiring an outside CEO could better guarantee the start-up’s long-term prospects. Such a move obviously would threaten her hands-on control ... but maybe that would be a good thing, she rationalizes, given how she’s practically estranged from her own family.

We traditionally expect superficial characters in films of this nature, but that’s far from the case here. Hathaway brings unexpected depth to Jules; the larkish tone notwithstanding, she’s almost a tragic figure. She undergoes a subtle yet visible transformation, as this narrative progresses, her outwardly buoyant façade eventually succumbing to real tears and fears.

Hathaway makes her fully dimensioned — simultaneously strong and vulnerable — and that’s truly rare in a romantic comedy: yet another indication of Meyers’ deft touch as a director.

Hathaway’s skill notwithstanding, De Niro never lets us forget that he’s this story’s Big Dog. In lesser hands, Ben would be a laughably corny cliché: cool, calm and collected to a ludicrous degree. The man even dresses perfectly. But De Niro makes it work, his earnest handling of Ben never, ever sliding into caricature or exaggeration.

And this, ultimately, may be Meyers’ neatest trick. Her film repeatedly flirts with narrative, character and dialogue danger, where one wrong word or move would yank us right out of the story. But Meyers and her cast unerringly avoid all potential pitfalls.

The Intern may be “only” a modest comedy charmer, and it may not attract the audience it deserves, particularly during the traditionally substandard late summer/early autumn season that movie fans have been trained to avoid. But even if that is the case, I predict a long and happy afterlife in home libraries. This is the sort of film that folks will enjoy, time and again, for decades to come.

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