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.