Robert De Niro: Your Internship Is Waiting, Your Mentorship Is Needed

By James Tehrani

Sep. 21, 2015

Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway star in "The Intern." All photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

I’m gonna make Robert De Niro an offer he can and will undoubtedly refuse.

We have an editorial internship available, so if he wants some extra intern experience, I’d be happy to pull some strings.

De Niro’s latest movie, “The Intern,” opens this week (Sept. 25), so perhaps the famed method actor is looking to do a biopic on say H.L. Mencken and needs to work on his journalistic chops. The man did learn to speak Sicilian for his role in “The Godfather Part II,” to play saxophone for his part in “New York, New York” and, most famously, to box like a champ for his Academy Award-winning role as Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull.” From what I've read, he's also a thorough interviewer of sources to learn about the intricacies of the characters he intends to play.

Yes, I know that opening is a play on Marlon Brando’s line in “The Godfather,” but De Niro did play Vito Corleone in “The Godfather Part II,” so it’s not completely off-base. I planned to use that line as an ice-breaker if I landed an interview with De Niro about “The Intern,” but alas it was not meant to be. I was, however, able to get a sneak peak at the Nancy Meyers written and directed comedy, which co-stars De Niro as 70-year-old intern Ben Whittaker and Anne Hathaway as Jules Ostin, the CEO of a successful e-commerce women’s clothing startup called About the Fit, and here are my thoughts.

(Note: Some spoilers below.)

Speaking of Brando, De Niro is at his best when he looks in the mirror in his movies. You really see the “soul” of his characters that way. Remember the power of LaMotta (De Niro) reciting Brando’s “On the Waterfront” lines in “Raging Bull” or Travis Bickle (De Niro) acting “threatened” as he prepares himself for mayhem in “Taxi Driver”? In “The Intern,” one of the funniest scenes is a short one where De Niro looks in the mirror practicing the best way to keep his eyes blinking naturally for when he’s talking to Jules.

We learn just before Ben’s first meeting with Jules that one of her eccentricities is she doesn’t like — or trust — people who don’t blink enough while talking to her, which is, I’m guessing, intentionally ironic as Jules seldom blinks when she’s having a conversation. Her eyes are wide open if you will. The beauty of De Niro’s role as the “observant” Ben is, in most scenes, he subtly blinks more than normal in Jules' presence. Watch for it in the movie; it’s a thing of beauty.

But there isn’t much time for blinking in the film. Meyers does a masterful job of establishing a quick pace to the movie that keeps it interesting. There’s a fantastic rhythm that’s anchored by the film’s nondiegetic score.

While Ben is the intern, he is also a mentor to Jules and some of the other younger workers on staff, which, I’m guessing, must be what it’s like to work with De Niro in real life.

He is a master at not only acting but also “becoming” the person he portrays, and he seldom fails. In this case, we find out that Ben, a former phonebook executive, lacks purpose in his life after his wife died and he retired. Of course, About the Fit — I’m not sure why a company name was picked with the initials ATF; it makes me think of the government agency and connotes a volatile environment — is a hip 2-year-old growing company, which asks intern candidates to create a Web video about themselves instead of a cover letter.

Acting the part of an older job candidate without much current tech savvy, Ben admits in his video that he had to ask his grandchild for tech support to figure out what a USB connector is. Later, once hired, Ben can’t figure out how to start his computer. It’s a bit cliché, but still funny.

Meyers has said Ben is the best male character she’s ever written, and it’s easy to imagine how she went to great lengths to tie the character to De Niro the real person by adding subtleties bordering on autobiographical portraits. The film is set in New York, De Niro’s stomping grounds, and there’s even a Tribeca reference, the place in New York where De Niro set up his entertainment business and, of course, his famous film festival. In one scene Ben offers to get sushi for Jules, who forgot to eat. It's one of De Niro’s favorite foods. In another scene, Ben, Jules and three other male employees drink shots of tequila until Jules has had too much. Patron is reportedly one of De Niro’s favorites.

It’s fun getting to know the work environment at About the Fit and the quirky characters who make up its staff (including Adam Devine and Christina Scherer [pictured with De Niro and Hathaway above] who play Jason and Becky in the film). Someone in the company rings a bell to recognize when something good happens to the company (such as getting a record 2,500 likes —hearts? — on an Instagram picture) or to recognize workers’ achievements, no matter how small. Ben gets recognized for cleaning a perpetually messy communal desk, and it’s great watching him sheepishly accept the praise. Getting the bell rung for him earns Ben a visit from the office masseuse (Rene Russo), and the two form an instant connection.

To show how busy Jules is, and perhaps her lack of leadership experience, she tries to do everything. She rides a bike around the office so she can get to her next destination faster, plans meetings in five-minute intervals, and even answers and handles customer service complaints when bridesmaid dresses show up in the wrong color. She promises to inspect the replacement shipment of dresses herself, gives the client her personal cell number if there are problems and even refunds the person’s money.

Hathaway for her part does an excellent job portraying the workaholic Ostin, and there is excellent chemistry between her and De Niro that jumps off the screen. You can feel the pressure mounting in Jules’ head as she tries to balance running a company that has quickly grown to 220 people with her family life, which we find out is difficult for her. Her husband (Anders Holm) agreed to take on stay-at-home Dad duties so Jules could focus on her career, but the decision obviously has worn on both of them. And some of the other moms are critical of the decision, which leads Jules at one point to exasperatedly say, “Are we really still critical of working moms?” Indeed.

I don’t want to spoil the film, but one of the only things that bothered me about it is how easily Jules forgives someone who hurts her badly. Earlier in the film, when she’s feeling the pressure of having to find a CEO to essentially be her boss, she says incredulously, “Get me some CEO lessons.” Truth is, she doesn’t need them; she just needs a mentor to point her in the right direction. She is a natural leader. In the aforementioned forgiveness scene, it feels odd to see this strong female leader seem weak in her acceptance of a personal betrayal even if it makes for a nice Hollywood moment.

“The Intern” is an excellent portrait of startup office life in 2015, and I highly recommend it. What sets it apart is the mentor-intern aspect of the movie, although at times it seems Hathaway’s character is the one going through an internship rather than De Niro's. After all, while millennials get most of the workplace attention these days, there is obviously a lot of older workers with a lot of knowledge to share and vice versa for that matter. That’s what internships are all about.

Right, Mr. De Niro?

James Tehrani is the director of content strategy at FlexJobs.

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