The Intern has been panned by film critics. Why am I not surprised?

Nancy Meyers, director of The Intern, has a string of commercially successfully films about women to her name. But critics have always given her a raw deal

Having always thought of cinema as a safe space, I was ready to cry about five minutes into Nancy Meyers’ The Intern, and then continued wailing and sniffling until the end credits rolled. There’s something about her films that acts as weaponised emotionality, and this lovely, gentle movie about life, ageing and death got me good.

It’s also bloody funny, much like Meyers’ previous film It’s Complicated, which is for my money one of the finest sex comedies of the past decade. (It’s hard to argue with Alec Baldwin cupping his hand over Meryl Streep’s vulva and musing, “Home, sweet home!”)

The film team review The Intern

So, I was disappointed – but not surprised – to find no break with tradition in the critical drubbing a new Nancy Meyers film is almost always guaranteed to receive. The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Farber called it “an overdose of blandness”, Slant’s Eric Henderson grumbled about it being “the ultimate in disingenuousness”, and “so much for the notion of liberated women” sniffed the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern.

Indeed, when there’s a new Meyers film on the slate, you can just about hear the critics sharpening their knives. It’s a fate that befalls the work of many female film-makers, especially if they dare to make films that are nominally “for women”. (Woe betide the film-maker who makes movies for older women.)

Female film-makers are up against it long before their film hits the cinemas, from the initial pitch all the way through to the critics’ screenings. Behind the scenes, they are hampered by misguided perceptions of women directors, writers and producers as being part of a “shallow talent pool”, as a Sundance Institute study revealed this year.

Once their films are in cinemas, it’s not unusual for their work to receive unduly harsh criticism; Vulture’s Mynette Louie spoke to a number of female film-makers this year who reported that “the Hollywood psyche” is often shaped by the critical consensus of “a fleet of film critics whose ranks are 80% male”.

JoJo Kushner (left) as Paige and Robert De Niro as Ben Whittaker in The Intern.
JoJo Kushner (left) as Paige and Robert De Niro as Ben Whittaker in The Intern. Photograph: Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures/AP

In 2012, the makers of Greta Gerwig-starring vehicle Lola Versus sent an industry-wide email decrying the gendered nature of criticism the film received:

The male critics are attacking the film and our box office really struggled last night. We think this has a lot to do with it being a female driven comedy about a single woman, and the older male critics don’t like messy unapologetic stories with women at the center. There was a similar backlash against HBO’s Girls at first from men, but we don’t have the luxury of a full TV season to change their minds.

That same year, Lorene Scafaria’s subtly bleak Seeking a Friend for the End of the World also suffered from being tarred with the “chicks’ movie” brush; many critics misread it as a romcom that happened to have apocalyptic themes. The Telegraph’s Tim Robey trashed the film and then recoiling from the intensity of his own attack, confessed, “I’m being harsh”.

A female film-maker whose movie receives an excoriating critical response may also find it counts against her more than her male peers when it comes to having her next project greenlit (after all, look at the critical reputation of Michael Bay, Brett Ratner and the Farrelly Brothers, among others, versus the opportunities they are afforded).

Meyers is lucky that her movies are generally popular enough that the box office results guarantee her next project. But as she told New York Magazine, The Intern took a tortuous route to the screen, in part because her films have long been dismissed as “chick flicks”, both by critics and within Hollywood; not dissimilar to a scene in The Intern, where someone dismisses the successful e-commerce business run by protagonist Jules (Anne Hathaway) as “a chick site”.

“Somehow there’s a judgment attached to it, and that judgment is never applied to films that men also go to, though I don’t think my movies are just attended by women,” Meyers said.

“I read it in reviews or just snarky comments you can read online. Over the years, it’s been hard to get male movie stars to be in a movie if a woman’s the lead, where a great, great movie star, a woman, will be in a movie where the man’s the lead. So there’s just not parity there, we’re not on equal footing.”

The reading of The Intern as somehow “unfeminist” is especially baffling, given it’s essentially a critique of the “having it all” lie, first explored by Meyers’ 1987 film Baby Boom. Typically, this criticism centres on the moment De Niro’s eponymous intern says, before offering Jules some advice, “I hate to be the feminist here …”; the line is clearly played for laughs, but has been decried as an egregious example of mansplaining.

Now, call me old fashioned, but I don’t believe that undergrad neologisms such as “mansplaining” have any place in film criticism. Apparently that’s the age we live in, though, and mansplaining is what Meyers (by virtue of writing and directing this film) is guilty of. To borrow from poet John Betjeman, come friendly bombs and fall on “feminist” film commentary.

Similarly, Meyers’ – and other “women’s films” – are often criticised for being “unrealistic” in a way that male-centric films rarely are. There’s no doubt that Meyers’ films occupy a 1% milieu; her film interiors are so aspirational they recently inspired a “Which Nancy Meyers Kitchen Are You?” quiz (I got Father of the Bride because I am “great at making people feel welcome”). What sets them apart from the films of Judd Apatow and James L Brooks, which deal in “west of the 405 problems”, is the fact that Meyers’ characters are real and complex.

The Intern deals, at various points, with grief and mourning, ageing, infidelity, job-related stress, the vagaries of schooling and parenting, the realities of a 21st century 24-hour work schedule, and even a good old fashioned traffic jam. Yes, we’d give our right arm for the Brooklyn brownstone that Hathaway’s character lives in, but at no point do her problems seem fantastical or invented.

Anne Hathaway and Robert De Niro as an odd couple in The Intern.
Anne Hathaway and Robert De Niro as an odd couple in The Intern. Photograph: Warner Bros Pictures/AP

Then again, it seems these films can’t win. Jordan Hoffman, writing for The Guardian, would apparently have found The Intern more believable had Jules’s work-life balance issues been caused by a, shall we say, less feminised job, writing: “all this sturm und drang isn’t for a surgeon, but a gal hawking schmattes.” Schmattes, for those not up to scratch with their Yiddish, means rags: you know, the rag trade, clothes; girls’ stuff; chick flick fodder.

Yes, why can’t female film-makers write some nice, believable stuff, like a movie about an astronaut who survives by planting potatoes in his own poo when abandoned on Mars, or about an alliance of superheroes who save the world from an interdimensional alien invasion?

Giving voice to more women in the film industry doesn’t simply mean more female directors and writers, but critics too. And the critical respect offered to female film-makers who work in a macho (and thus, acceptable) milieu, like Kathryn Bigelow, should be extended to those who make “women’s movies”, too.

Perhaps the last word is best left to Meyers, who when asked by New York Magazine if sexism in Hollywood is changing said there was a shift in the tenor of conversations in the industry about women, this time, by the women themselves.

“Women in Hollywood want to talk, or, should I say, want to be heard. They don’t want to sweep the gender issue under the rug any more. And there is most certainly a gender issue.”

  • The headline on this article was amended on 1 October 2015. An earlier version said The Intern had been panned by male critics.


Clem Bastow

The GuardianTramp

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