Nancy Meyers has clearly missed her calling. The writer/director of such films as Something’s Gotta Give, It’s Complicated and What Women What Meyers should seriously consider leaving cinema behind and become one of Disney’s Imagineers, creating the animatronic robots featured in several of the rides in their theme park empire. Meyers has no parallel when it comes to creating characters that, on the surface, seem like human beings but upon closer examination turn out to be a collection of wheels and cogs meant to simulate actual people.
Her latest film, The Intern, is a vivid example of Meyers doing what she does so well … for the first ten minutes you could almost swear you’re watching a movie about human beings.
Robert DeNiro plays Ben Whittaker, a 70-year-old widower who is finding his retirement to be less than idyllic. Anxious to be around people again, he applies to be part of a seniors-mentor program for new businesses and gets placed as an intern at an on-line e-commerce fashion site started, and run, by Jules Ostin – a young, high-powered woman played by Anne Hathaway.
You could write the resulting film while standing in the popcorn line. She’s a mess but too afraid to ask for help. He’d be the perfect mentor but isn’t allowed to provide the assistance she needs. Due to some wacky mix-ups Jules slowly begins to warm to Ben, understanding he might have the wisdom she’s lacking. By the film’s third act they’ve become tight buddies and, thanks to each others strengths, have learned valuable life lessons of the heart warming variety.
But it’s not the predictable plot which is so astounding (where would Hollywood be without predictable plots?) it’s how unbelievably fake the characters and their story is. Ben would appear to live on a planet where aliens sponsor an “adopt an Earthling” initiative; he was supplied with the facsimile of a human body and the manner of a dad from a 50’s sitcom which the aliens pulled from the ether and beamed down into this movie. I’m not sure I can describe, with justice, how plastic this man is—he’s never in anything less that a sunny, smiling mood and even though he’s repeatedly isolated and ignored, he has lost the capacity to be humiliated … sitting for hours at his desk doing absolutely nothing while waiting for Jules to need him.
He takes time out of this very hectic schedule to mentor some of the young guys in the office; teaching them about attaché cases, proper manscaping, the importance of handkerchiefs and how to woo fair maidens. It’s like Martha Stewart started making people.
Hathaway fares even worse. It’s hard not to search for autobiographical touches in the movie and, apparently, Meyers is extremely conflicted about women working outside of the home. We know that Jules is a high-powered, but unconventional, executive because she rides a bicycle in her office—no, not to her office but in her office so she can get to meetings quicker… although she ends up an hour late to all of them. She stops every now and again to cry and has all kinds of trouble juggling her job with her home life—she’s got an incredibly understanding husband (straight out of a Lifetime TV movie) and a nauseating precocious towheaded child and she loves them, by God!, but she loves her company as well. But outside of riding the bike, it’s not entirely clear what she does as the boss since even though there’s 250 people reporting directly to her somehow she can’t tell any one of them to clean off a table in the office that’s overflowing with junk.
Jules gets repeatedly worked up about this messy table but is paralyzed into inaction. This may or may not hint at another biographical facet of the film. Meyers, who notoriously oversees all the set decoration of her movies, has an almost Joan Crawford-like relation to mess. One of the hallmarks of her films (and why she’d be the model Disney employee) is that nothing is ever out-of-place. The furniture, the fittings, the fixtures, the fabrics … even the pillows on the bed are arranged with rigid precision. DeNiro, as a 70-year-old widower, lives in an apartment which appears to have been decorated by Anna Wintour and we never see anything askew. Hathaway, as an extremely over-worked wife and mother, lives in a gorgeous Brooklyn brownstone fresh from the pages of Architectural Digest which, I suppose, is invaded nightly by a fleet of shoemaker elves moonlighting as cleaners. Even the office – which we’re told repeatedly is bursting with new hires – could easily double as an operating theater, although it would be unnecessary since animatronic robots don’t ever need surgery, just software upgrades and new batteries.
But now we come to the weirdest/sickest part of The Intern. Meyers has filmed a movie set in a world where black people don’t exist. With the sole exception of a receptionist with two lines at the beginning of the film, there are no African Americans in The Intern. I may have spotted one or two in some of the crowd scenes but none of the lead actors, supporting players or character roles are given to people of color. With Viola Davis’ beautiful Emmy acceptance speech rumbling around in my head “… the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity” I marveled that such a film could be made in 2015. Were people of color not allowed to audition? Did they audition and each get rejected? Did not one single person working on this movie ever stop and think: “Hey! Look at us! We’re all white people!” I’m still rather stunned by what I saw … or rather didn’t see.
But maybe it’s wrong expecting Meyers to put black people in her movies … since she really hasn’t mastered the art of putting any people in them.
Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based critic and writer.