Nancy Meyers loves male A-list movie stars. But she puts them through their paces. The roles she gives them are tests as often as not – greatly taxing their comic resources (Mel Gibson in “What Women Want”) or the charisma of their dignity (Steve Martin as the slightly boring and responsible suitor of Meryl Streep in “It’s Complicated”).
When she’s got Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton in the front lines of “Something’s Got to Give” she can – as she so often does – make great Hollywood piffle. She’s Nora Ephron Lite – a soft-core feminist concocter of romantic comedies.
Robert De Niro has one of the tougher male roles yet in a Meyers movie though it probably won’t seem like it to most people. He spends at least 75 percent of “The Intern” exploring every expression a grown man might have that is intended to reveal nothing but can’t help revealing a lot.
As misused an actor as De Niro has so often been (by no one more than himself), he is still one of the best we have. But even De Niro runs out of ways to purse his lips and convey a faulty determination to keep his thoughts to himself.
While he’s pursing his lips through half the movie, the audience is supplying his thoughts about his new 30-something boss, an ambitious, driven, hugely creative and overtaxed head of an exploding Internet startup company promising consumers perfectly fitting clothes.
Unfortunately, the life she’s got – house husband, young daughter – is very progressive but not quite a perfect fit for her business responsibilities.
It’s at that moment that one of her more creative partners starts an internship program for senior citizens based on the undeniable premise that retirees with a lifetime of real-world experience in both life and business would have a lot to contribute to any business and a lot of free time to do it in.
All of which is perfect for De Niro in buttoned-up mode playing a widower with a son and a grandchild on another coast, a successful past running a phone book business and a current life of too many funerals and too much tedium and ineffectuality.
None of the women he runs into hold a candle to his late, beloved Molly and there’s only so much traveling a 70-year-old man can do – and only so much tai chi in the park, too.
So he decides, what the heck, why not take a flier at being an unlikely intern of grandparent age at a wildly unconventional business that clearly has a sense of humor?
Funny thing, though, about our boy. He prefers to dress in suits and ties whenever possible. He carries a handkerchief at all times. His behavior is impeccably correct and respectful to everyone and just as likable, even to those less than half his age.
You can learn an awful lot about the behavior others expect from 70 years on earth and he seems ready to slip into all of it at every moment.
He is assigned to work with that startup’s highly charged, very demanding creator and boss, whose business is exploding and requiring more, sometimes, than she’s ready to give. Life with husband and daughter is smooth and good at the moment but readings on the emotional barometer indicate heavy weather is quickly on the way.
Our business heroine Jules is played by Anne Hathaway, an actress whose huge on-screen lovability has earned her all manner of Internet and “inside Hollywood” snark. I’m inclined to think Hathaway’s nastier detractors all need a time out, but then I’m in De Niro’s chronological tribe.
Jules’ new senior citizen intern soon becomes her driver, companion, confidante and – though the word father is never uttered – her near-full-time father figure in life, a man who sees almost everything and discreetly says nothing to upset her. He’s just there to help. He’s got some business ideas, all of which greatly increase efficiency and profit, too.
He may not understand the vagaries of Facebook yet, but he’s a bit of experienced magic otherwise.
It’s Meyers in her traditionally clueless misapprehension of her own plots, who absurdly avoids what is patently obvious to every viewer of “The Intern” – especially the older folks who’ll be the largest segment of the film’s audience.
De Niro is playing a near-perfect father figure to a young, grown woman – one who understands both how much of herself she’s put into her company and how gifted she is at running it. He is that magical human being that Bette Midler once memorably said was so hard to find for hugely successful women – someone who is genuinely happy for her.
It’s a bit ridiculous finally that Meyers is so fearful of pointing out how paternal he is. And while you’re looking out for ridiculous things about “The Intern” – did her new startup company have to be located in the same building as his old phone book company?
And did her new e-business have to have an office masseuse on daily de-stressing duty as gorgeous as Rene Russo, who’s suddenly considered perfect for the new intern?
And while we’re asking questions, did it ever occur to Meyers that today’s 70-year-olds are Woodstock-generation types inclined to be casually dressed rather than tie-wearing, hankie-bearing members like those of Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation”?
Carefully note in this film that when her intern’s value to her in every area of her existence couldn’t possibly be greater, she never once mentions money.
So let’s not talk about money. Or daddy issues. Or the movie’s supposedly comic “burglary.” (Somehow, I get the feeling Nora Ephron wouldn’t have done so much toe-dancing on this plot’s very narrow line.)
Meyers thinks she’s just made a movie about a needy, overtaxed, misunderstood young woman who just needed a perfect friend and happened to find one who is male and 70.
As Meyers piffle goes, this one’s more ridiculous than most but, as always, she’s got our number. We leave the theater after “The Intern” has shown us two people finding each other at a perfect time of life for each.
As Meyers films usually are, “The Intern” is a clumsy but diabolically brilliant commercial for American prosperity.
Younger and downscale viewers are on their own.
Starring: Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo, Linda Lavin
Director: Nancy Meyers
Running time: 121 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for suggestive content and language.
The Lowdown: A retired 70-year-old widower agrees to become a senior intern to a high-power young businesswoman with an Internet startup.