‘The Intern’ Is ‘Lean In,’ Delivered by the Patriarchy

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There’s a telling moment in the final third of Nancy Meyers’ latest glossy, whitewashed comedy, The Intern. Lounging in luxe robes, sipping tea, and bingeing on snacks from a hotel minibar, a fashion and tech entrepreneur named Jules (Anne Hathaway) and her new “senior intern”/grandpa figure Ben (Robert De Niro), have a heart-to-heart about her work-life balance. Can she have it all?

She says “no,” but he says “yes,” admonishing her that he sounds “more feminist” than she does. She cries, and he is chagrined; his #1 rule of chivalry is to keep a handkerchief around for female tears, yet his robe does not come equipped with his go-to accessory. He can only comfort her with kind looks while she wipes her doe-like eyes on her own robe. It’s so hard to be a ladyboss in this day and age. Good thing the 70-year-old male intern is there to offer wisdom and support.

This is The Intern, a movie about raw yet fragile female power held up by kind, competent — but very masculine — male scaffolding. It presents a bizarre and almost incoherent set of gender politics in appealing packaging. The film yearns for the good old days of briefcase-toting, tie-wearing company men who shaved every day, while ignoring the fact that most of those guys operated in a deeply sexist environment and wouldn’t be as graciously accepting of a young female boss as Ben is. Not only does he tell her to lean in — repeatedly — but he frowns on her husband’s bad behavior and upbraids the playground mommies for not respecting Jules’ career enough. They should be proud of her for smashing the glass ceiling, he says, when clearly they’re too busy sneering at her lack of time to make homemade snacks. Again: stupid ladies who don’t understand feminism. Thank God there’s a 70-year-old guy to explain it to them!

People often characterize Nancy Meyers’ films as fantasies, superhero movies for another audience, in which gleaming kitchens and floor-to-ceiling windows are the trappings that replace capes, superpowers, and weaponry. But there’s nothing more fantastic about her films than her ability to neutralize male swagger — in the form of Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin, Mel Gibson, even — and turn it into something puppyish and nonthreatening, even beneficial and helpful for women. Don’t get me wrong; it’s lots of fun to watch sweet Robert De Niro serve as a feminist-avenger fairy godfather, but it’s also very surreal.

Indeed, De Niro’s Ben Whittaker, a widower and retiree who takes the special “senior internship” because of loneliness, not financial necessity, is an utter charmer who makes The Intern pleasant to watch at every turn. Human existence is a difficult slog, but after many decades of it he still has no edge, no bitterness, and no resentments — just unadulterated sadness over his wife’s loss and the growing number of funerals he has to attend. At the screening I attended, the word “cute” and other nonverbal sounds that expressed the same sentiment issued forth from multiple audience members’ mouths as Ben got ready for his special internship at Jules’ hot hot hot fashion startup, setting his analog alarm clocks and packing his calculator, briefcase, and other accoutrements of a bygone age.

Naturally, rather than look at these relics as bizarre, within days the schlubby millennial dudes at the startup are imitating Ben at every turn, confiding their love troubles and listening to his advice about talking to girls instead of texting them. The house masseuse, played gamely by Renee Russo, sparks it off with Ben, leading to one of The Intern‘s incongruous forays into mild ribaldry and slapstick. The guy is a hit.

Less quick to soften is Jules — but only marginally less quick. She’s a busy, “quirky” founder of a site that has exploded into a major business in a matter of years. She doesn’t have time for him. She bikes to meetings, takes customer service phone calls herself, mails herself packages to see how customers are experiencing things, and is always a step or two behind schedule. She needs an intern, but bristles at the idea of having Ben on her team. She’s “not great to work for,” according to everyone in the company, except this is a movie with no teeth — so rather than a mean boss, Jules comes across as a really nice but super-stressed gal who just needs some wisdom from the old Benster to get her mojo going again. And he feeds her soup when she forgets to eat, to boot.

The major conflict in the film is that Jules’ focus on her career is hurting her marriage, or so she thinks. But Ben is wiser. He sees the truth: that her husband, another bearded hipster who could use a pocket square and blazer, is simply being a schmuck, lashing out because of his house-husband status . While Jules considers bringing in a (male) CEO to help run her company, be her boss, and give her more time to work on her family, Ben is there to tell her to hold on to her vision and never let a man boss her around (except presumably for him, when he suggests it nicely).

Not to worry, though. Nearly every conflict in this film is forestalled by a hasty apology, maybe even a hug. No acrimony lasts more than a few scenes and no one — well, almost no one — has a real flaw. This is a movie about nice people at a nice company doing nice things, and helping each other. It has that “female gaze” quality of glossing over conflict and emphasizing cooperation between different types of people. This isn’t terrible in itself; it may even be a valid form of storytelling.

Unfortunately, The Intern follows Meyers’ pattern of being so white it makes Nora Ephron’s oeuvre look positively ethnic. They didn’t even bother casting a person of color to play one of the assemblage of dorky guys who form Ben’s posse at the startup. Nor does The Intern, which is a love letter to Brownstone Brooklyn, even touch on the gentrification that is driving out many lifelong residents of the borough — or the controversy over unpaid internships making it impossible for young people to live. Sure, one younger intern can’t find an apartment, so Ben puts him up. Not only has he solved patriarchy, he’s solved the economy too.

The Intern is pleasant and fun, yet these notable omissions make the fantasy aspect of the film feel less forgivable and more ominous. It’s everything that’s wrong with “White Feminism,” packaged adorably and delivered on time.