My husband and I watched the movie, The Intern, the other night. The first half was great—funny, sweet, unexpected. Then it veered off track and turned into a different movie. Not so funny. Not so sweet. Only unexpected in that it made you say, “Whaa? What happened?”
It forgot the story promise it made to its viewers.
Note: Spoilers ahead, as I can’t talk about why this is an issue without giving things away. But it won’t really spoil the ending, because sadly, the ending, spoiled the ending.
The premise is super cute: 70-year-old widower Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) has discovered that retirement isn't all it's cracked up to be. Seizing an opportunity to get back in the game, he becomes a senior intern at an online fashion site, founded and run by Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway).
Jules is focused, driven, yet deeply cares about her company and clients. The first time we meet her she’s dealing with a customer service call and going above and beyond to help—she even gives the woman her cell number (classic example of “show likable and redeeming quality”). Her story problem is that her company took off so fast she can’t keep up, and her investors want to hire a CEO to run her company for her. They lack faith in her abilities (classic problem: “can she learn how to be a CEO in time?”).
Ben just wants to feel useful again and be part of something. He’s steady and calm, friendly, and doesn’t miss a thing. He’s not there to prove anything, just do a good job and not sit around all day. He’s a well waiting to be tapped (classic mentor role).
The tagline for this movie is: Experience Never Gets Old. You can totally see where this is going.
A Clear Story Promise
Multiple times Ben’s 40 years of business experience is mentioned. Multiple times Jules’ lack of business experience is mentioned. We see her taking on too much and not delegating, not using the valuable resources of people she has gathered around her. We see Ben see this. We see him want to help.
Clearly, this is a movie where Ben is going to help Jules learn what she needs to learn so she can prove to her investors that she is indeed the right person to run her company. Ben’s need to be part of something (he worked for the same company for 40 years) firs perfectly with Jules’s company. This is a place he can do that.
Reinforced by Clear Story Themes
At first, this is on track. We see her reject Ben as her personal intern (classic “reject the opportunity”). We see her slowly accept him as he continues to do his job and be what she needs. We see him anticipating her needs and taking some of the stress off her shoulders.
This is all mixed in with elegant subplots around Ben’s “fish-out-of-water” role of the old guy in the young world. The interplay with his younger peers is wonderful. Every relationship he has works with the movie’s experience theme. We see Ben helping those around him in the same way we know he can help Jules if she’d just let him. It’s working beautifully—the subplots enhance the main storyline, and we’re waiting for Jules to take that step. Cheering for her to do it.
And then it goes wonky.
Where it Went Wrong
Part of Jules’s stress is a stay-at-home-dad husband who stopped working to care for their daughter when Jules’s company took off. There are some issues there, which is fine as it gives Jules motive and stakes. Jules wants to do right by everyone, and this tears her in too many directions. Her big decision is whether or not she’s going to hire a CEO and let someone else run her company, or find a way to grow into this role she wants.
It’s great. We want to see what she’ll choose, we want to see if she’s learned enough to use her resources and grow. We want to see Ben help her, and see how Jules uses his experience in her own unconventional way.
Except that somewhere in the back half of act two, Ben discovers Jules’s husband is having an affair, and the entire movie forgets itself and changes the story.
After that, the plot no longer focuses on Ben helping Jules to become the CEO she needs to be, to delegate and use the amazing and talented people she’s put together. To use his experience to keep her company hers. It’s about whether or not she can forgive her cheating husband, because she loves him, and it’s her fault he cheated because she works so much, and a CEO means she can be a better wife, and she doesn’t want to lose him or her company, but she still wants to run things the way she feels is right.
And in the end, she forgives the husband (don’t even get me started on this—that’s a whole other gender-issues post), she decides to not hire the CEO, and keeps doing what she’s been doing.
Why it Didn't Work
At the end of the movie, Jules is EXACTLY where she started. She’s still running the company as always, and maybe having Ben around gives her someone to talk to and rely on, but she learned nothing from this experience. She’s exhibited zero skills to help her be a better CEO and satisfy her investors, who will probably boot her out and take over her company because she can’t do what they asked her to do. The core conflict of the movie was NOT RESOLVED. Just postponed.
Ben never gets to be her mentor, he’s more a father figure for Jules (who has lousy parental figures). His experience is actually wasted, so instead of being useful to the person who needs him most, he’s a nice guy Jules can go to when she needs a hug. He gives her a little advice, but it’s a token of what the setup promised. His business experience was supposed to help her become a better business woman. Not, his age was going to be a comfort to her in times of stress.
The movie’s climax and resolution had nothing to do with the story question posed at the start of the movie. Even the decision to hire the CEO or not wasn’t based on her ability to handle the job, it was should she do it to save her marriage. A choice that makes no sense, cause why not hire the guy if she needs to spend more time at home?
If Jules had no family whatsoever, the plot still worked. Her family wasn’t the problem keeping her from being the CEO her company needed. Her lack of experience was.
The minor marriage subplot hijacked the entire movie and drove it off a cliff.
What We Can Learn From The Intern’s Mistakes
1. Keep your story promise: If you set up a beautiful story, and clearly show what your story is going to be about, don’t decide in the final act to switch core conflicts.
2. Remember what your core conflict is: Your story is trying to solve a single problem (even if it’s complex). Make sure your ending resolves that problem using the skills and lessons learned over the course of the novel.
3. Don’t let subplots hijack the real story: Subplots are shiny, they’re fun, and they’re often filled with emotions. But they’re not the point of the novel.
Readers trust us to keep our promises and give them the story we agreed to tell them.
Have you seen The Intern? What did you think? Do you know any other stories that failed to keep their promises?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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