Robert De Niro attains peak adorable-ness in “The Intern,” a genial, gentle, regrettably bland comedy by writer-director Nancy Meyers. For particular audiences, Meyers has become a reliable purveyor of stories about funny, flawed people of a certain age, bringing her signature brand of observant humor and fetishistic production values to such wry over-40 rom-coms as “Something’s Gotta Give” and “It’s Complicated.”
With “The Intern,” she changes things up a bit: Rather than the perfect copper-plated kitchens and cozy living rooms she’s become famous for, this movie inhabits the sleek, wired-in world of a Brooklyn loft, where a newly successful entrepreneur named Jules (Anne Hathaway) runs her e-tail clothing business. Having launched a search for senior citizen interns (then promptly forgotten about it), Jules is urged to take one under her own wing, for appearance’s sake. Enter Ben Whittaker (De Niro), a 70-year-old widower who last worked producing phone books and who arrives promptly every day dressed in suit and tie, briefcase in hand, pocket square pressed.
The clash of analog and digital cultures makes for the most obvious humor in “The Intern,” which features an early, eye-rolling scene of Ben and a neighbor (Linda Lavin) professing mutual ignorance of how those newfangled computer-machine thingies actually work. Once Ben and Jules get to know each other, though, the story takes on less predictable textures: What at first threatens to be a thinly disguised Baby Boomer screed against Millennial laziness and entitlement winds up being a surprisingly affecting meditation on ambition, self-doubt, gender roles and the enduring search for balance between “love and work, work and love,” as Ben intones during the film’s opening sequence.
He’s quoting Freud, of course, and traces of Oedipal wish fulfillment can be discerned in Jules’s relationship with a man who represents a father figure at its most idealized and supportive. There’s no chance of romance between the two (he becomes infatuated with the company masseuse, played by the sensational Rene Russo), so what unfolds is something filmgoers don’t see every day: a genuine friendship between a grown man and younger woman, uncontaminated by jejune cliches or icky innuendo.
For that alone, and for its feminist politics, “The Intern” deserves congratulations — but, sadly, enlightened principles aren’t enough to make a film fun to watch. Although Hathaway adroitly avoids playing Jules as yet another brittle, neurotic career gal, she’s almost completely devoid of the contradictions that would make the character far more interesting. Meyers clearly didn’t want to punish Jules’s ambition by making her unsympathetic, but the result is a character with no edges — sharp or otherwise — to speak of. (Her biggest flaws are a weakness for multitasking and not getting enough sleep.)
The de-fanging works better with De Niro, who made a career of embodying volcanic menace and now exudes a quietly befuddled, Teddy bear-ish charm. Watching him interact with his younger co-workers — at one point, explaining what it’s like to shave every day, later taking them on a bizarre junket to dismantle Jules’s mother’s computer — accounts for most of the laughs in “The Intern,” which features Andrew Rannells, Adam DeVine, Zack Pearlman and Jason Orley in appealing supporting roles.
As charming as De Niro is, one can’t help feeling that one more pass through the laptop might have made “The Intern” sharper, keener, maybe more confrontational and spikily funny. (Like most comedies these days, this one is at least 20 minutes too long.)
Instead, Meyers seems content to make a nice movie about nice people doing their best to be nice to each other despite one or two not-nice things that happen along the way. That’s all very nice, but not particularly the stuff of potent or rousing entertainment. “The Intern” feels a little bit like the tai chi exercises that Ben does in the park throughout the film — you look for something to react to and laugh at and maybe even shed a tear about, but you wind up pushing against a puff of air.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some suggestive content and brief, strong profanity. 121 minutes.