Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Intern

Alternate Title:  The Taxi Driver Wears Prada

One sentence synopsis:     A retired widower joins a senior internship program at a startup fashion company, and becomes the personal assistant of the frazzled CEO.

Things Havoc liked: Let's be honest with ourselves here. Robert De Niro is a great actor, but he's been phoning it in for literal decades now. I mean, I watch a lot more movies than most people do, but even I struggle to recollect anything about his more recent projects, boring make-work fare like Killer Elite or godawful tripe like Freelancers. Yes, De Niro is an old man, whose reputation and stature in Hollywood is eternally secure, and he doesn't need to be running around proving himself to anyone anymore, but it's not like any of those factors have stopped Maggie Smith, Hellen Mirren, or Meryl Streep from continuing to produce high quality work in interesting films. And the nexus of a lot of the crap De Niro has been his comedies. If they're not garbage like What Just Happened or Grudge Match (and they usually are), then he quickly stars in a number of sequels to them (Meet the Fockers, Analyze That) which are guaranteed to hammer the quality level back down to what we have come to expect in recent years. I love De Niro, and will always love De Niro, for all the many, many great films he's done, but he trades on that love to get away with making throwaway crap, ground out in a week or two so that he can get back to Tribeca and his political work.

So, with all that in mind, I decided this week that it was best to go see a Robert De Niro comedy.

*Record scratch*

Now hold on, this movie's more than just a Robert De Niro vehicle, it's an Anne Hathaway vehicle, and that's a different prospect entirely. Anne Hathaway is a wonderful actress, and I've loved a great many roles of hers, from The Dark Knight Rises to Les Miserables, to The Devil Wears Prada, which is where we finally arrive at this film. Hathaway plays Jules Ostin, founder and CEO of an online fashion startup in Brooklyn, who resembles in no small part a number of people I know hanging around the tech industry, people who are pulled constantly in eighty-six different directions at once because, deep down, they sort of prefer it that way. Her character is not the Satanic fashion overlord that Meryl Streep played to such effect in Prada, but sort of a... natural evolution of the one that Hathaway played, someone who is intensely focused and highly self-driving, but who tries, at least, to moderate those tendencies when it comes to everyone around her lest she transform into the boss from Hell. Which is good, because the movie really isn't about Bosses From Hell, nor about the dangers of overwork, nor even (as the trailers seemed to indicate) about Robert De Niro being old and unacquainted with technology, and thereby setup for pratfalls when it turns out he doesn't have a Facebook account or doesn't know what the internet is for.

So what's the movie about then? Well, strangely enough, that's kind of a complex question, and even more strangely, the confusion that results is actually to the movie's credit. You see the film recognizes that, while having a seventy-year-old intern working at your company is... perhaps unusual, as well as a bit awkward at times (the interview question of "Where do you see yourself in ten years" is not the most appropriate one here), it's certainly not the most revolutionary gut-buster to ever cross the threshold. After all, De Niro is hired as part of a Senior Internship program, examples of which exist in the real world. And so after exhausting the veins of "old guy among young people" jokes for about twenty minutes, the film really finds itself with no choice but to pivot around and turn into something of a character study. We have Hathaway, who is sharp and committed, and possessed of a strong vision for her company, trying to juggle her family's requirements (her husband gave up his career to care for their daughter), with those of her company (which is reaching the point where a professional CEO may be required, a dangerous moment for any startup). Far more self-aware than most Captains of Industry, she recognizes that she may be attempting to do more than is humanly possible, with resulting strains in her life and in the company itself. And opposite that we have De Niro, who allows himself to play De Niro, a charming, smart, wizened man whose background in company work (he spent forty years as a phone book production manager/salesman before his retirement) fits better into the chaotic mess that is any startup, particularly an internet company with an average employee age of 26, than anyone anticipates. Smart though they may be in their fields, and the film makes that clear enough, nobody at this hectic company has a sense of what it means to be a company, an institution designed to last for decades, not months, and while De Niro certainly doesn't take over, he brings a sense of stability and reliability to the proceedings that is self-evidently valuable.

Sure, there's comedy here, some of it pretty good, as De Niro's old-world charm begins to rub off on the fresh-from-college man-children that inhabit the company's ranks. A standout sequence involves De Niro taking command of a squad of interns and technicians as they try to retrieve and delete a nasty Email that Hathaway's character has accidentally sent to her overbearing, critical mother. But mostly, the movie just sort of lets the characters work off one another, be they De Niro and the company masseuse, played by Rene Russo (in a nice turnabout from her last outing), Hathaway and her frustrated (to say the least) stay-at-home-husband (Comedy Central's Anders Holm), or mostly, Hathaway and De Niro themselves, who share an effortless platonic chemistry in the movie that's actually quite surprising, given the premise promised by the trailers. The movie leans on this chemistry a lot, which is a good decision, softening a lot of the more preachy elements in the film, while indulging in sequences where Hathaway seeks... perhaps not advice, but just a sounding from someone who's life experience and background is entirely alien to everyone else's in her world, while De Niro quietly and calmly dispenses what he thinks are the proper dollops of advice that bridge the gap between fatherly, friendly, and just wise, to those who seem to need them. A worse movie could have turned this into the retiree version of The Legend of Bagger Vance, where a magic old person miraculously solves the problems of everyone around them. Instead De Niro does, and says, what he thinks is best, and if he's right, it's simply because he's been there before. He never presumes to step in further than is appropriate for someone who admits to not understanding everything that's going on with the fast-paced world of internet support, nor the realities of non-traditional-gender-role-households (there's a mouthful), and the resulting restraint pays off for the movie, by making it simply about two interesting people and the interesting conversations they have with one another.

Things Havoc disliked: And it's kind of surprising that it does so well at that, because frankly, this movie is pretty badly written. And that's unfortunate, considering it comes from Nancy Meyers, a writer and director of these sorts of sugary, women-centric movies whom I actually like a fair amount, at least when it comes to her earlier work like Father of the Bride or The Parent Trap (I can even find one or two good things to say about Private Benjamin if you twist my arm). But since taking on the Director's chair, while Meyers has achieved commercial success (she used to hold the record for most successful film directed by a woman), the writing quality of her movies has gone way downhill, starting from the aforementioned "success" What Women Want (*shudder*), and proceeding on through films like The Holiday or It's Complicated. Meyer's signature has always been to find a parcel of great actors and get them to act against one another in a relaxed setting, and that's what she does here, but the movie also delivers a lot of big, elaborate speeches, and those speeches are, inevitably, stiff, wooden exercises in bullet point recitation. Do not get me wrong, the problem isn't the themes in the movie, feminist or otherwise. The problem is the on-the-nose quality of the dialog, or more precisely the intersecting monologues that fill a lot of the run-time of the film. De Niro gets an opening narration, one I understand is intended to set the tone of the film from the get-go, but that comes across so leadenly-dull, like the bullet points of a character study being turned in at a community college literature class, that it really robs us of the chance (until later) to get to know the character at all. A speech midway through the film by Hathaway of how men have lost their sense of quiet charm and the societal sources thereof, would be unlistenable if the actress delivering it wasn't so good, or the setting established so well (she's drunk in a bar, rambling to a captive audience who looks as awkward as we feel). De Niro and Hathaway are so good in this movie, so effortlessly good, that a lot of the worst effects of this sort of stilted dialogue is mitigated, particularly when it's just the two of them talking to one another. But even the best actors can only cover for so much, and one is left with the sense that perhaps the reason the film concentrated so closely upon these two characters is because the film would have fallen instantly apart the moment the script was asked to bear any real weight.

Final thoughts:    The Intern is not a great movie, but it is a rather surprisingly good one, one that I liked when I left, and find I actually like a little more now that I've had a bit of time to sit back and think about it. It may be a personal matter for me, as my own father spent some time as the Old Man of an internet startup back in the first .com boom, and found that his job, in no small part, was to educate the kids around him, smart though they unquestionably were, about the actual mechanics of business in general. The film has, unfortunately, gotten dragged down into an internet mudslinging contest, as didactic feminist theorists have accused everyone who doesn't like the movie of being sexist shitheads who hate women (my favorite claim, published in The Guardian, being that Richard Roeper, who thought far more highly of the film than I did, "only" gave it 3.5/4 stars because he is engaged in an active conspiracy to drive women out of the movie business). But taking the film as a film, particularly when comparing it to its trailers, the result is a much more charming little piece than I had anticipated seeing, and a welcome reminder that there is actually a reason why Robert De Niro (and, for that matter, Anne Hathaway) is as famous as he is.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time:  Man on Wire.

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