Nancy Meyers’ cinema of affluent pleasantness continues unabated with “The Intern,” a pillowy trifle about nice, well-off people overcoming, well, nothing much really, all in order to continue being happy and successful. Rarely has a Hollywood movie delivered less drama than Meyers’ latest, which is so free of complications or conflict that it barely has reason to exist, except as a fawning showcase for beautiful modern office spaces, immense men’s walk-in closets (replete with automated tie racks!), and enormous Pottery Barn-style kitchens where cherubic tykes say adorable things to likable upper-class parents – and, in this instance, to their wonderful new surrogate grandfather, who appears like a gift from on-high to solve whatever mini-crisis they might be facing.
That divine visitor is Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro), a widowed 70-year-old who comes to realize that retirement — after forty years spent as a big shot at a phone book manufacturer — doesn’t suit him. Despite taking vacations, doing tai chi in the park, and being wooed by a local friend (Linda Lavin), Ben decides that the only thing that’ll fill the hole in his soul is work. Thus, he applies for an internship program that places senior citizens in roles at a Brooklyn start-up company. That firm turns out to be an internet clothing retailer founded and run by Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), who gets around her stylish office on a bicycle — how cute! — and who likes to talk about how difficult she is to deal with, even though she comes across as merely a slightly frazzled (and far from insufferable) workaholic and perfectionist.
The way in which “The Intern” describes Jules as a monster even as it presents her as an affable, if harried, businesswoman and mother is emblematic of its entire story, which has been shorn of anything resembling a sharp edge or complex situation. Ben’s coworkers are genial Park Slope hipsters beset by minor problems (a living arrangement issue here, a romantic dilemma there) that are easily solved by Ben’s wise-sage advice and assistance. And almost instantaneously, Ben is acclimating himself to his new laptop-and-Facebook cultural environs, dating the office’s handsy masseuse (Rene Russo), and winning over his fellow coworkers with his snappy suits, 1973 attaché briefcase, and fatherly advice.
Ben’s good-natured perfection exposes him as the story’s de facto Mary Poppins, and his flawlessness is both the source of the humor in “The Intern” — thanks to a handful of sequences in which he serves to be a voice of reason and action amidst millennial buffoonery — and it’s biggest problem. Ben has no impure impulses or personal problems, and he never fails to say or do the right thing. As such, every scene he’s in becomes a predictable platform for him aiding others with a gracious comment, kind gesture, or selfless act. While Meyers initially suggests that she’s interested in exploring Ben’s desire to stay professionally and socially relevant even at his advanced age, any such concerns are quickly dropped in favor of using him as a prop for faux-zany hijinks (including a breaking-and-entering scene borrowed from an old “Seinfeld” episode), and as a tool for helping Jules figure out how to chart a course for herself and her company.
Hathaway and De Niro share a serviceable dad-daughter chemistry that makes much of “The Intern” passable. Yet Ben and Jules’ circumstances are so devoid of urgency or consequence that it’s impossible to care about the obstacles in their way, which include both Jules’ need to hire a new, outside CEO for her company (a move forced upon her by investors), as well as a late adultery revelation. Given that angelic Ben is always there to lend a hand, such predicaments turn out to be merely obligatory plot twists meant to provide some small semblance of purpose to these generally aimless proceedings.
Meyers’ comic direction is snappy, and a few exchanges between old-school Ben and his contemporary cohorts touch upon the gaping divide between the confidence and self-sufficiency of past generation’s men and the more immature, slacker-ish geekiness that defines present masculinity. Amusing as they are, however, those bits are as fleeting as the film itself is paper-thin. Not to mention that, in its portrait of a strong, independent woman learning to embrace her own ambition, desires, and future via the aid of an older male mentor-cum-father-figure, it colors its triumphant fantasy of female empowerment in a distinctly conservative, paternalistic shade. [C+]