When, earlier this year, Joan Didion posed for an ad for the French fashion house Céline, “the fashion Internet,” The New York Times gushed, “quivered in a way it hasn’t at least since Kim Kardashian stripped nude for Paper magazine.” Some of the quivering, certainly, was due to the fact that Didion, who long ago ascended to “icon” status, has served as a role model for eager young writers. But the rest of it came from something more basic: the sight, at once refreshing and revolutionary, of an older face—a face filled with soft wrinkles—in the pages of Vogue.
I thought about that ad when I watched The Intern this weekend. On the one hand, the film suffers from all the stuff recent Nancy Meyers films have suffered from (Rich People Problems, White People Problems, a general veneer of bland entitlement and perky malaise); on the other hand, though, it is, in the universe of recent Nancy Meyers Films, probably the best. That’s largely because of subtle, compelling performances from Anne Hathaway and particularly Robert De Niro, but it’s also because of the particular kind of rom-com The Intern is: one that takes an expansive approach to the “rom,” blessedly precluding the possibility of a sexual relationship between a 70-year-old man and a 30-something woman. (Thank you for that, Nancy Meyers.)
But The Intern’s primary storyline also eschews the tired cliches of the rom-com by making the obligatory Thing That Divides the Couple in Question not circumstantial, but generational. Ben (De Niro) is older; Jules (Hathaway) is younger; this is the key plot-driver of the film. The premise of The Intern—unquestioned and insisted-upon—is that Ben has something to offer Jules: advice that is bolstered by wisdom. Caring that is nurtured by life experience.
Call it the swami-com: The Intern is at core the story of the relationship—softly nurturing, mutually satisfying—that develops between a mentor and a mentee. And while there are many, many complaints to be made about it as a piece of film and a piece of culture (see above, and also pretty much every review that’s been published about it thus far), the most redeeming thing is this: The film respects, insistently, the wisdom of experience. It values what so many other cultural products, implicitly and less so, do not. It makes an assumption that is both traditional and subversive: that the older person, here, has something to offer the younger person. Not just because of who he is, but because of how old he is.
This should not be such a strange premise for a film. It should be, actually, an extremely boring premise. And yet: It’s hard to think of other recent pieces of culture that adopt a similar attitude toward age. And it’s hard, as well, to think of portrayals of mentorship that take place outside the confines of the family. Sure, there’s Whiplash. There’s 30 Rock, which makes repeated gags of the rules governing Jack’s mentorship of Liz. There’s Gibbs in NCIS and Dr. Bailey in Grey’s Anatomy and Diane in The Good Wife and all the reality TV shows—Project Runway, The Voice, Top Chef—that endow their experts with some combination of barking authority/gentle guidance/guruhood.
In general, though, those portrayals of mentorship, when they’re to be found, are presented primarily from the perspective of the mentee, with audiences meant to identify with the struggles of the advised-to, rather than of those who dispense the advice. And they’re up against all the other many, many recent shows and movies, from New Girl to The League to You’re the Worst to Drinking Buddies, that carry on in the tradition of Friends and Girlfriends and How I Met Your Mother: portrayals that celebrate the power of the friend group not just as a unit of social organization, but as a unit of wisdom. Parents, bosses, mentors in general—they’re largely absent from these universes. Advice is exchanged horizontally.
That general posture—the celebration of the peer-to-peer network—probably has something to do with the culture’s longstanding fetishization of youth, and the rise of Facebook, and the rise of the Grups, and the fact that some of the world’s most powerful companies are run by wunderkinder in hoodies, and the hope that 60 is the new 40, and the reality that, partly because of the web’s flattening effect, “youth culture” is, increasingly, simply culture. While it may not be the case, as A.O. Scott argued last year, that we are collectively witnessing the death throes of adulthood in that culture, what may be truer is that age itself—the raw data of experience—has lost its place as a determining factor of cultural authority. We have found a way, culturally, to replicate the cruelty of the ice floe.
The Intern, bless its treacly heart, rejects all that. It celebrates age as a value unto itself. (“Intern,” here, is of course ironic, as it’s the intern who ends up teaching the boss, etc., etc.) Jules runs a successful business (an e-commerce startup). She’s capable and hard-working, but she may be too young, her investors think, to run her business now that it’s a bona-fide company. And Ben, for his part, is looking for something to do after his retirement and the death of his wife. (“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not unhappy,” Ben confides in a voiceover. “I just know there’s a hole in my life, and I need to fill it.”) Long story short(er): Things work out well for both of them.They both help each other get what they want, and maybe even what they need.
This is not the stuff, to be sure, of deep philosophy. The glib Benjamin Buttoning—Ben and Jules meet in the middle, emotionally!—is not subtle. There is, as my colleague David pointed out, a “Magical Old Man” quality to Ben, who swoops into Jules’s life, fixes her problems, and dries her tears with his omnipresent handkerchief. (And there’s the fact that he’s a man, with all the freight that brings.) The younguns here also come in for a drubbing: Jules rides a bike through the company’s converted-loft office space, ridiculously, and there are a lot of predictable jokes at the expense of both digital technology and the say-anything proclivities of the young. (“I’m 24,” Jules’s assistant, Becky, tells Ben, quickly adding: “I know, it’s the job—it ages you. Which won’t be great in your case.”)
And yet. You know who comes out looking great in all this? Ben. This is his film, through and through. And there’s something powerful in that, in the simple fact that The Intern is so sympathetic to its older character—so resolutely on the side of a person who might, in other contexts, be dismissed or ignored or, as is so often the case, invisible. The Intern is in some sense the cinematic version of that Céline ad with Didion: It celebrates age for the wisdom it brings along with it. Ben’s resistance to the complacencies that are so often ascribed to the elderly could double as a rallying cry for older people as a group. People who may be retired, but who are not yet tired. People who will not go with the floe. “I read somewhere that musicians don’t retire,” Ben tells The Intern’s audience. “They stop when there’s no more music in them.” He pauses. “Well, I still have music.”