As the credits rolled, applause broke out for “The Intern” in the South Florida theater where I saw it. Considering that this is a low-key comedy — no one triumphs over adversity, beats the odds or gets rescued from Mars — the response from an audience of people who, like me, were getting the senior discount surprised me. Then I thought about it again and realized what makes this film a clap-worthy achievement. In an era where there’s only contempt for elders who have been left behind by technology, “The Intern” gives us a retiree who becomes a role model and mentor for his young colleagues, despite the fact that they have to teach him how to use Facebook.
The plot is simple. Retired businessman Ben Whittaker (Robert DeNiro), lonely since the death of his wife and bored with idleness, signs up for a senior intern program at a Manhattan online fashion startup: About the Fit. Relegated to menial tasks at first, the straight-laced but charming 70-year-old soon winds up as the go-to advisor on matters of male fashion, relationships and business decisions for not only his Millennial co-workers, but also his beautiful, hard-driving and winsome 30-something boss, Jules Ostin (Ann Hathaway).
Nancy Meyers directs. No stranger to romantic comedies the Oscar-nominated and award-winning filmmaker’s most recent rom-coms, “It’s Complicated” and “Something’s Gotta Give,” both feature late-life love stories. Meyers, who’s in her mid-60s, told Entertainment Weekly that real-life scenarios have inspired everything she’s ever written. “This one is about retirement, when you’re 70 but you’re fully healthy, but you don’t have that thing you do every day anymore. You don’t have that purpose.”
Since “The Intern” opened in September it’s been a box office hit despite mixed reviews. The film’s been called trite (the script is not exactly Shakespearean or even Nora Ephronian), regressively paternalistic (old guy tells young woman what to do) and meandering (the movie runs over two hours for no good reason). It also takes some ageist pot shots, like showing one of the senior intern applicants as pitiful (he’s hauling an oxygen tank) and characterizing a female senior intern as a terrible driver. But not one of the critics has noted what a rarity this film is — when did you last see an intergenerational workplace portrayed as a success, with millennials who are actually willing to learn from a non-emotionally damaged, non-supernatural male senior who doesn’t do social media. In contrast to the typically immature older man/boy on screen these days (Michael Douglas in “Last Vegas,” Al Pacino in “Danny Collins”), DeNiro portrays an actual grownup. He’s so sensible and mature that everyone in the company looks up to him, asks his advice and wants him around.
Meyers explains, “I think he’s the best guy I’ve ever written. He’s a really good man, and he comes to the aid of our girl Jules in many ways.” Ben is assigned to be Jules’ personal helper, and Jules finds herself more and more dependent on him as he becomes her trusted advisor. He pays close attention to who she really is and helps her find balance in her life.
Ben also becomes an unlikely fashion icon for his goofy young male co-workers, who show up to work in jeans and T-shirts. They admire his old-school suits, pocket handkerchiefs, snazzy ties and “retro” leather briefcase. And they seek him out for relationship advice. In one laugh-out-loud scene he advises a clueless young co-worker that you have to actually talk to a woman to apologize, not just send an email with cute “sorry” emoticons.
What does Ben get out of the deal? In addition to learning how to use Facebook, he gets to be appreciated for his wisdom — a satisfying role for any older man who’s been marginalized. He keeps busy and finds new meaning in life as a mentor, and even has a romance with the office masseuse, played by the glamorous 60ish Renee Russo.
If the scenario that Meyers has created in “The Intern” seems like a sweet fantasy —at least in the tech sector — it wasn’t always so. The traditional corporation relied on older managers to mentor young workers. In her new film, Meyers makes the case for a new intergenerational workplace that, instead of discriminating against older workers, values them for their experience.
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“The Intern” is playing in theaters now. Google “The Intern showtimes” for local screenings.