The Intern doubles as a weird case study in how our brains are culturally programmed. When we first meet retiree and lonely widower Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro), he’s fidgeting around with technology he doesn’t quite understand in an effort to make a video resumé for a position as a “senior intern” at a hip online Brooklyn clothing retailer. Immediately, my brain started telling me, Oh, see, Ben is going to be the dopey “old” guy who just doesn’t understand technology and it will be played for as many dumb jokes as possible. Then we meet the CEO of the aforementioned company, Jules (Anne Hathaway), and my brain once again assumed, Oh, this is going to be the tired trope of the demanding and mean woman boss who is going to learn to enjoy life again through Ben’s dopiness.
Anyway, I was wrong.
I don’t blame myself for thinking that, because we’ve seen both these scenarios play out way too many times over the last few years. It’s a defense mechanism. It’s fight or flight. In other words: I have the right to defend myself or, at least, prepare myself in these situations. And then after I braced myself for impact, nope, none of this happened.
I was well aware that Nancy Meyers wrote and directed The Intern and also aware that there was little chance Meyers would play into these tropes. If anything, Meyers has a knack for making conventional movies that are not conventional. And in 2015, making the woman CEO of a company into a normal human being is unconventional — and something Meyers does with Hathaway’s Jules extremely well.
First, back to Ben, a man so competent he makes the idea of using retired professionals with a lot of time on their hands as interns make a lot of sense. Sure, Ben dresses nicely to go to the office, but not because he’s some sort of fuddy duddy, but because he’s worn a suit to the office his entire life and he feels most comfortable that way. That makes sense! And yes, there’s one scene in which Ben can’t figure out how to turn on his MacBook, but what happened the first time you tried to turn on the new MacBook? My old MacBook had a separate power button; on the new model, the power button is integrated into the keyboard. It’s legitimately confusing the first time! By mid-film, with no fanfare, Ben is using an iPhone like everyone else and his lack of experience with modern technology is never mentioned again.
Yes, Jules works a lot, but it’s evident why so many people want to work for her. If she were awful, no one in their right mind would want to work for her upstart company. The company seems to be doing well, but not so well it’s worth being miserable. Jules is competent, smart, charming, and knows how to run her company. So, yes, basically just like someone who would actually be in her position.
Another trope I was worried about: That the older, crustier Ben would teach something to Jules about How Things Should Be Done. This, too, doesn’t happen. Instead, the two form a legitimate friendship and they both share their individual aspirations and fears with each other. Most importantly, the investors in Jules’ company want her to hire a new CEO — the thinking is the company has become too big and a CEO with more experience is needed. Plus, Jules wants to devote more time to her husband (Anders Holm) and daughter, time she hasn’t had as her company has become more and more successful. You can probably already guess the ending, that is, if this were a lesser movie. The Intern, in Nancy Meyers’ hands, is not a lesser movie.
It’s odd, though, to watch a movie like The Intern that’s just filled with so many nice people who are all just trying to do their best. Jules wants her company to be successful and seems to legitimately enjoy her job. Ben wants to be of service any way he can because he’s sick of not having a purpose. Ben’s fellow (much younger) coworkers never make fun of Ben. Instead, they want to be more like him — one going as far as buying a vintage briefcase online. There are really no villains in The Intern. (Okay, without getting into spoilers, one character commits a villainous act. But even that character isn’t portrayed as a fundamentally awful human being.)
If anything, The Intern is the kind of movie that reminds us that life is hard enough without villains. And, most likely, everyone really is trying the best they can.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.