The Intern is one of those films that’s not easily labelled. It absolutely feels like a romcom, especially with writer/director Nancy Meyers at the helm (responsible for the likes of Father of the Bride and It's Complicated), but there’s not really any romance in it to speak of. It’s also a funny film, though you’d fall short of calling it a comedy, and it consistently packs in the feels, only there are too many lighter moments for it to be an out-and-out drama. Ultimately, whether by chance or design, The Intern's indeterminate status actually offers us a neat reflection of the story within it, for this is a story about two individuals — the ‘retiree’ and the ‘working mum’ — both grappling with the expectations and misconceptions that accompany those characterisations.
De Niro, the retiree, is a 70-something widower without a purpose. Intelligent, polite and openly uncomfortable with inaction, his character Ben Whittaker applies for (and secures) a place in a senior’s intern program at fashion tech startup About the Fit. Anne Hathaway, the ‘working mum’, is the company’s 30-something founder and CEO, Jules Ostin.
Passionate and driven but overworked, Jules is fending off shareholder insistence that she hire a ‘proper’ CEO while simultaneously struggling to keep her family together on account of her relentless schedule and the restless ‘stay-at-home dad’ (another unhelpful label) waiting at home. When De Niro is assigned to be Hathaway’s personal intern, their initially uncomfortable partnership soon develops into an indispensable friendship: he the calming influence on her, and she his newfound sense of purpose.
The early scenes in The Intern are enough to give serious pause. De Niro’s ‘old guy in a young person’s tech world’ shtick had the potential to be incredibly hammy, and moments like not knowing how to wake up his laptop or use a USB did not augur well for avoiding the tired ‘analog meets digital’ cliche. Hathaway’s character, too, was immediately unlikeable, wearing her wireless headset and riding her fixed-gear bicycle through the office from meeting to meeting.
Thankfully, though, neither concern plays out for long. De Niro’s reserve — that trademark smile and gentle nod that has traditionally masked violent intent — works perfectly as a juxtaposition to the madness of the Gen Y workplace around him. His old-school approach to both work and life endears him to all, as he offers advice from fashion and accessories through to putting down the phone and actually talking to people. Similarly, as soon as Hathaway’s pristine veneer reveals its vulnerabilities, she becomes at once an entirely sympathetic character and a surprisingly cogent representation of the unresolved workplace gender debate.
In many ways, The Intern plays out like an adaption of Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought or Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the first female director of policy planning at the US State Department and author of the controversial ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’ essay in the Atlantic. Both these texts highlight the difficulties and hypocrisies surrounding successful women in the workplace, including why we never hear the label ‘working dad’, and — at its heart — this is what The Intern ultimately concerns itself with. There are plenty of laughs along the way, as well as some admittedly saccharine scenes, but mostly this is a heartwarming tale of friendship and a constructive engagement with feminism and gender inequality.