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Movie Review

De Niro’s bland ‘Intern’ doesn’t work out

How lovely it must be to live in Nancy Meyers’s universe. The weather’s always sunny, the clothes look great, everyone’s home is ready for a magazine spread.

Her latest, “The Intern,” is set in a Brooklyn that resembles a hermetically sealed and hypoallergenic version of its actual self. The emotions and situations are ready-to-wear, too, which makes the writer-director’s oeuvre (“What Women Want,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” “It’s Complicated”) entertaining and unthreatening when encountered in a date-night setting but practically useless for long-term investment. Still, the stuff’s cute and it sells.

In “The Intern,” the cuteness is off the charts and the sell-by date feels stuck in the past. The film is supposedly about the touching cross-generational relationship between a young Internet entrepreneur, Jules Ostin, and the senior citizen, Ben Whittaker, who starts as her intern and becomes her father figure. Really, it’s about Anne Hathaway learning to have it all with the help of a magic elf named Robert De Niro. That casting alone is cause for despair.

Ben’s a retired widower trying to keep busy while resisting the advances of a horny widow played, as broadly as possible, by Linda Lavin. Jules’s 18-month-old company, About the Fit, is an online clothing boutique working out of a former Red Hook factory — in one of the less credible script tangents, we learn it’s the same building in which Ben labored for four decades — and in a fit of PC inclusiveness, she brings Ben and other seniors in as office gophers to work alongside the young coders with flannel shirts and baroque facial hair.

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Hathaway is easily the best part of “The Intern,” giving sympathetic shadings to a role that’s written as a collection of morning-show discussion topics. Jules is a workaholic struggling to keep her young company afloat while maintaining a home life — in a gorgeous Park Slope brownstone, of course — with stay-at-home husband Matt (Anders Holm) and teeth-grittingly adorable daughter Paige (JoJo Kushner). There are crises at home, crises at work, the investors are pushing her to hire an experienced CEO — what’s a businesswoman to do but sit in the conference room and cry? And to whom should she look but a benevolent 70-year-old dude who knows the answer to everything?

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It’s a fantasy and a flattering one, and Lord knows we go to the movies for that. “The Intern” is welcome in its insistence that those who’ve been around long enough to have life experience might have much to teach those who haven’t. But does everything about Ben have to be perfect? He dresses impeccably, knows how to reel Jules in when she gets drunk with the staff, helps her with her marital troubles and business decisions, goes for tai chi classes in the park, provides helpful feminist advice (!), and recalls his 42-year marriage as an unbroken span of bliss. Put him in a nightshirt and he’d be Clarence the angel from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

De Niro is likable and professional in the role, and that’ll be enough for the movie’s mainstream target audience. For anyone who remembers when the actor was the most dangerous man in movies — when the suspense was in waiting for his characters to lurch forward in spasms of violence — “The Intern” is cause for sorrow. There’s even a scene that puts Ben in front of a mirror, not to snarl “You talkin’ to me?” but to ensure he’s presentably bland enough to please his new boss. Scorsese wept.

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Another scene requires Jules to invite Ben into a business-trip hotel room and onto her bed while they’re both wearing bathrobes — a weirdly dissonant moment that isn’t resolved by the confessions and tears that ensue. “The Intern” gives us De Niro defanged, a wise scoutmaster to the fuzzy boys of Jules’s office (Adam DeVine, Zack Pearlman, and Jason Orley as a sort of Williamsburg Manny, Moe, and Jack) and a benevolent lover to the office masseuse, played with Zen-lite indulgence by Rene Russo.

By the final scenes, Meyers has loaded up the movie’s designer paper plate until it buckles. She’s so desperate to make sure Jules has it all and then some that the plot stops making sense. (The characters may look kindly on that errant husband, but we’re not likely to.) For a comedy that presents itself as forward thinking, “The Intern” is bizarrely retrograde, implying that every working woman only needs a cuddly Yoda daddy to make it in the world of business. It’s soft in the heart — and soft in the head.

★ ½

The Intern

Written and directed by Nancy Meyers. Starring Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo, Anders Holm.

At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 121 minutes.

PG-13 (some suggestive content and brief strong language)


Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com.

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