Many high-grossing blockbusters these days consist of big budget movies strewn with CGI, over-the-top explosions, and hectic stunt scenes. Every once in awhile, however, cinemagoers may find respite from movies that parade sex and violence to garner the audience’s attention and refresh their eyes on down-to-earth movies that focus more on the actors’ dialogue and social interactions with one another than their fight choreography and exchange of physical blows.
One such down-to-earth comedy is The Intern (2015), directed by Nancy Meyers. The film narrates, often hilariously but also in a heart-warming way at times, the intertwining lives of Ben Whittaker, played by Robert De Niro, and Jules Ostin, played by Anne Hathaway. Ben Whittaker is a 70-year-old widower and retiree who has grown tired of his monotonous day-to-day life and seeks new life experiences by applying for a senior internship at an online-shopping startup. Jules Ostin, the founder and CEO of a blooming e-commerce fashion company About the Fit, is still in the prime of her life as a young working mom. Despite her successful startup business, Jules is overwhelmed by her various commitments to her family and career. The last thing on Jules’ mind is taking in a near-octogenarian intern. As she even admits herself, Jules is not too fond of interacting with old people and caustically remarks to Ben about “the humor in this” situation. Jules initially thinks that the senior intern her firm has hired out of corporate social responsibility will weigh her down, but she is soon proved wrong. Ben and his lifelong wisdom help Jules regain control over her work and personal life.
The movie’s lighthearted and humorous atmosphere often invoked laughter from the audience. In addition, unfitting juxtapositions and contrast called for awkward yet amusing situations. For instance, Ben shows up to work in his classic suit and tie, carrying his leather suitcase, and setting up his desk with pens, paper, and an old-school calculator made him comically stand out from the modern setting of the office crowded with rows and rows of electronic devices. Such situations highlighted a common theme present throughout the film: generation gaps.
The theme was conveyed through symbolism as well. During one of Ben and Jules’ conversations, it is revealed that Jules’ online shopping company is based in the same building that once housed the phonebook company Ben was an executive in, Phonebooks, that was once essential to society but now obsolete, represent the previous generation. On the other hand, Jules’ startup, About the Fit, heavily relies on modern technology and the Internet. Hence, About the Fit stands for the new generation that harnesses progress and innovation. The contrast between phone books and online shopping thereby reinforces the theme of generational differences.
Another strikingly memorable symbolism I remember were the trees outside the office. When Jules comments on how beautiful the trees look, Ben reveals that he has actually planted them. When one generation plants saplings, they fully grow and bear fruit after at least a few decades to be enjoyed by the next generation. Through the imagery of people planting trees for the next generation, the director sets the standards for selfless sacrifices that the older generation should make to prepare the foundation for the future generation.
Despite Robert De Niro being famous for playing characters that are violent, depressed, or borderline psychotics, his performance as Ben Whittaker, a congenial old man who kindly offered his wisdom to his younger friends, was as natural and fitting as could be. Ben Whittaker is a very likeable character that I think we can all learn from. Even though Ben is much older than the people around him in the office, he is not afraid to act humbly and befriend each and every one of them. In fact, he kindly lends his helping hand to those around him: he offers the other male interns dating tips on how to talk to women in real life and not just through texts and SNS, gives them fashion advice on how to dress like a gentleman, and even stages a daring heist to delete an erroneous email sent by Jules to her mother. Ben’s attentiveness to other people’s needs and patience when coaching those who are less experienced than himself are a stark contrast to many older people I have seen in my life.
Especially in Korea, where society has traditionally revered the elderly, people tend to act more authoritatively when interacting with younger people. In addition to taking respect and obedience from younger people for granted, when giving advice to those who are less experienced and less wiser than they are, people fail to be as considerate as Ben Whittaker.
All in all, The Intern cheerfully deals with contemporary issues of generational differences and in doing so, evokes laughter as well as other powerful emotional responses from the audience. The film is both entertaining and educational, in that the movie is enjoyable, and it also presents us with a role model, Ben Whittaker, to demonstrate how the younger generation should respect the elderly and learn from their wisdom, and how the older generation should never fear new experiences but instead try to learn from the younger generation, too.