Pleasant but bland, Nancy Meyer’s latest exercise in anodyne filmmaking is as sweet as cotton candy and just about as nourishing. It takes a premise that might have served for a nicely nasty age-reversal “All About Eve” and uses it for a white-bread fairy-tale that could serve as the pilot for a network sitcom.
The idea is that up-and-coming Internet women’s wear site About the Fit decides, mostly for PR reasons, to hire a few senior interns, and one of the applicants selected for the program at the Brooklyn headquarters is Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro), a seventy-year old widower who was a production executive at a firm that produced telephone books. (The idea is reminiscent of a subplot in the nearly-forgotten 1995 dramedy “Bye Bye Love” that featured Ed Flanders.) He’s assigned as a personal aide to company founder and obsessively hands-on president Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), who’s reluctant to have an intern at all and whose overworked secretary Becky (Christina Scherer) looks on him as a rebuke to her inability to deal with all her work.
Initially Jules ignores Ben, but though he’s technologically challenged (a joke that’s apparently inevitable in movies about older folk), he gradually makes himself indispensable, both in the office, where his old-fashioned skills come in handy and he spontaneously undertakes tasks (like emptying a desk piled with junk) nobody else will, and in his colleagues’ personal lives. Always well-groomed and dapper in suit and tie, he becomes a surrogate uncle to his three scruffy twenty-something male colleagues—one (Jason Orley) he instructs on how to dress for an important interview, another (Adam DeVine) he serves as matchmaker with Becky, and the third (Zack Pearlman) he even takes in at his place when the guy’s parents toss him out.
But it’s Jules he helps most. When he discovers that her driver’s a boozer, he assumes the job himself, and because she’s understandably upset by the suggestion of investors that she hire a CEO to help with managing the growing business, it’s Ben who bucks up her confidence. He and his three work buddies even break into her mother’s house to erase a vitriolic e-mail she mistakenly sent there—a slapstick episode that seems at odds with the rest of the movie. Most importantly, he gracefully gets to know Jules’ apparently supportive stay-at-home husband Matt (Anders Holm) and darling daughter Paige (JoJo Kushner) and, during a trip to San Francisco, commiserates with her when she tearfully confesses a family problem.
Happily that session—as well as an impromptu latenight office interlude in which Jules helps to set up Ben’s Facebook account and he reveals that the headquarters building was, coincidentally, the place he’d worked for forty years—doesn’t lead to anything romantic between the two; the relationship is more avuncular than that. Anyway, Ben finds a potential soulmate in company masseuse Fiona (Rene Russo), whom on their first date he takes—unexpectedly, of course—to a funeral. But Jules’ domestic difficulty and the potential hiring of a CEO are the only bits of conflict allowed to perturb the movie’s generally placid surface. And when the denouement rolls around, both are resolved with incredible ease. In fact, everything comes easily in “The Intern”—perhaps it’s because of the relaxing Tai chi sessions Ben enjoys in the park (as well as Fiona’s magic fingers, of course—the source of the few bits of naughtiness Meyers allows).
The stars handle this fluff with all the grace one would expect. Not much is demanded of De Niro but to .look alternately quizzical and abashed; even “Last Vegas” was more challenging. Hathaway is endlessly ebullient except when she’s asked to tear up or act flustered; her talent is hardly stretched here either. Scherer shows some spunk, but Russo could handle her scenes in her sleep (the other women in the cast, Linda Lavin as a neighborhood shrew with an eye on Ben and Celia Weston as another senior intern, are wasted). Of the men, Holm is nicely laid-back, while Pearlman handles the sub-Zack Galifianakis shtick well enough. The others are basically forgettable.
As usual with Meyers’ pictures, the production is glossy, with Stephen Goldblatt’s cinematography capturing all the richness of Kristi Zea’s production design, Susan Bode-Tyson’s set decoration and the costumes by Jacqueline Oknaian and Aude Bronson-Howard. But demerits for Theodore Shapiro’s sappy score, one of those jingly concoctions that’s entirely too insistent about telling us how charming everything on the screen is.
If De Niro were ready to do weekly TV, one can imagine “The Intern” as a comedy that would fit nicely into any network’s schedule. Ben could go from company to upstart company every week, mentoring their young, smart owners and hopeful employees with his sage life lessons and then leaving when all is running smoothly to go on to the next entrepreneur in need. It could run for years. On the other hand, it might prove too soft even for television.