The money quote from this film comes one night when Jules [Anne Hathaway] is celebrating with some key staff who’ve just gone above-and-beyond to save her embarrassment. She waxes lyrical about the likes of Harrison Ford before gesturing at her colleagues and asking “How did men go from that in one generation?” Boom – thesis statement of the film. Just what is wrong with men these days? The answer is that they’re not Robert de Niro, whose primary function in this story is to highlight the shortcomings of those around him by example, while being gracious, generous, kind and completely engaging. To that extent, this is a film by a woman aimed squarely at men, challenging us to be the best version of ourselves, and I actually found it very likeable and engaging. What came to mind at many points in this gentle comedy was Bill & Ted’s motto “Be Excellent to One Another”.
The critical response to this film has been fairly muted; it’s hovering at a decent 7.4 on IMDB and a slightly less decent 60% of critic responses on Rotten Tomatoes. Their “Critic Consensus”, which broadly matches my wider reading, is “the Intern doesn’t do enough with its timely premise, but benefits from the unorthodox chemistry of its talented leads.” Most critics then bring up Hathaway’s earlier role in The Devil Wears Prada, while missing the really crucial difference in construction between the two – in fact, some critics like Tim Robey have construed the film’s greatest strength as its flaw “the whole film’s so genial it could smile, and smile, and smother you while it smiles”. Ouch. Other criticism has more of a point, such as Bilge Ebiri’s comment that “as the speeches pile up, our goodwill dissipates, and so does the film’s magic.” I’d certainly admit that there is a hint of over-exposition, that the film doesn’t quite trust the audience to understand what it’s doing, but given that usually spot-on critics like Robey have missed what it’s doing, maybe that wasn’t an unreasonable strategy. What it’s doing is telling a story essentially without decision-point conflict; something which is very difficult for us in the Western tradition, raised in the shadow of Homer and the Greek Tragedians, to understand. It is precisely a film about being nice. About how things and people can be interesting without being in conflict. We are so trained to expect and demand conflict that I think many people have left this film just straightforwardly baffled about what they saw.
In that light, The Intern is advocating for an entirely different way of thinking about what makes a story, some kind of alliterative to the classic dramatic structure we were all taught in high school, of rising tension that eventually explodes in conflict. Another way of thinking about this is Robin Laws’ system of “beats” from Hamlet’s Hitpoints, in which each moment in a story is given an emotional valence. All the examples that Laws studies have an overall negative trend, where The Intern I think arguably has an overall positive trend. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of other “feel good” comedies in the market, but it seems wrong to me to condemn The Intern for being in that camp, which is essentially what most snap reviews did. Just like detective films, action films, horror, and other lesser genres in the critical consensus, we need to drill down and ask ourselves whether this is a good or a poor example of its type and grade it on the right metrics. For me, it definitely worked within its framework – I didn’t love it as much as Begin Again, say, but I left the theatre feeling good rather than suffering from a saccharine overdose.