Review: Anne Hathaway and Robert De Niro are adorable in low-stakes ‘The Intern’

Nancy Meyers is an easy target for cynical critics, and she's certainly responsible for her fair share of glossy nonsense. She's also the most financially successful female filmmaker of all time, and as big a brand as any male filmmaker working right now. The only difference between her and, say, Michael Bay is which altar they worship at. Michael Bay makes movies that are so artificial, so technically-driven but hysterically soulless that it's like Skynet got addicted to Internet porn and Jerry Bruckheimer movies, while Nancy Meyers' voice is more like what would happen if Pottery Barn became sentient.

I think Meyers is genuinely trying to expand the definition of what a studio comedy is, though. I think she's someone who has found her own niche, and just like Judd Apatow, she tells stories about characters who live the way she lives, which is to say very, very well. Affluence is just accepted. It's like an advertisement for white privilege, and she offers no apologies for any of it. And while it's easy to make jokes about her well-appointed kitchens and catalog-perfect bedrooms, that's not really fair. Her main concern in her films is the way relationships do or don't work, the ways they are made and the ways they are broken. It seems fitting that her early work was with her ex-husband Charles Shyer, and that she has made multiple films dealing explicitly with both marriage and divorce.

While there is a simple high-concept hook to most of her films, or at least something that's supposed to serve as one, they tend to be far less formula driven and far more about behavior than most of the films in the broader “romantic comedy” genre. I would say with “The Intern,” she's made the gentlest, most low-key version of this film I can imagine from a studio, and she did it by betting everything on the prospect of making Robert De Niro adorable.

Sure, De Niro's built a late career comedy persona for himself that is somewhat surprising if you were a fan of his during the first half of his career. There was a moment during the movie tonight where I flashed on the image of Travis Bickle standing in front of that mirror, a moment long since buried under an avalanche of homage and parody that was genuinely mad when audiences first saw it, and I had trouble believing that actor was the guy I was watching. De Niro was a mad dog when he was young, hungry every time he got in front of the camera. There's something very true about who Ben Whittaker is in the opening scenes of the film, where he's making his application “cover letter video” for a senior internship program at a relatively young start-up. He's a widower, retired, a guy who worked for 40-plus years at a job and did it well and made a good life, and he's bored and trying to distract himself, and it's a case of De Niro exactly striking the tone that the director is aiming for, a perfectly calibrated transformation into a teddy bear in nice suits.

One thing I can say in favor of “The Intern” is that it is a relentlessly good-natured film, and there is such a pervasive sense of mean in our comedy culture (much of which I am an unabashed fan of, so don't get me wrong) that it almost feels subversive to make something that tries to paint in near-total positivity. Ben is a good guy, sentimental and smart and fairly open in every way. When we're first told about his new boss, Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), she's made to sound like she's going to be scary. This is not, however, “The Devil Wears Prada.” Ben doesn't teach Jules how to be decent or human or more in touch with her humanity; she's doing just fine on all those counts. She's a success because she had a good idea and she followed through on it in the right way. She's built a good company, and she's surrounded by good employees doing their jobs well.

If anything, Meyers has worked so hard to make sure this is a charming cast of characters that there's no real drama to any of it. Even when there's a major betrayal inside a marriage, it seems like the most benign and easily resolved version of it ever. But again… I don't think people go to a movie like this because they want realistic difficulties. This isn't Ken Loach. Meyers wants this to be all sort of amiable and charming and a big warm bath of a film, and it is. Zack Pearlman and Jason Orley play Davis and Lewis, two other interns hired at the same time as Ben, and Meyers uses them to make the point that young guys today simply don't carry themselves the same as men from previous generations, with the film clearly on the side of elegance and more traditional definitions of manhood. The supporting cast, including Adam DeVine, Anders Holm, and Rene Russo, are all working in that same low key, with Hathaway and De Niro tasked with carrying about 80% of the film. They have a genuine chemistry, and everything between them has a simple charm. If the end of this movie revealed that Ben was her Tyler Durden, an imaginary friend designed to steer her through some (mild-mannered) emotional turbulence, I would not be shocked. That's how perfectly Ben fits into her life and just how overall positive everything is.

Did I like “The Intern”? Not especially. But it was a painless sit, and it's not aimed at me. People who like the films Meyers has made, movies like “It's Complicated,” “Something's Gotta Give,” and “The Holiday,” are going to absolutely like this. You know what you're getting when you buy a ticket to something with her name on it, and “The Intern” is nothing if not a confident expression of the exact world-view that drives all of her work.

“The Intern” opens in theaters this Friday.