Catching up with “The Intern” and “Knock Knock”.

Our fundamental task as movie critics is to judge (there’s that dirty word) a motion picture on the basis of what it sets out to do. Not every film is trying to be “The Battle of Algiers,” nor should they all be assessed as such. So, when watching a film by Nancy Meyers, my mind tends to oscillate between “do I want to spend some time in this warmly lit Pottery Barn interior, or do I want to run from it?” Meyers has never met a throw pillow she didn’t want ten more of: she’s our Nora Ephron, but even more ingratiatingly cute. Save for her charming trifle “Something’s Gotta Give,” which gave old-time Hollywood stars like Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton legitimate platforms to be sexy and vivacious once again, Meyers’s worldview is not a one I respond to. Hers is a vanilla world, but my taste in comedy runs towards a more flavorful end of the spectrum.

And so here we are with “The Intern” which is, against all odds, better than you’ve heard. Ignore the movie’s somewhat confused gender politics and its bland sitcom look and you’ve got an undeniably flawed but genuinely amiable tale of a big-hearted retiree (Robert Deniro) who teaches a desperately ambitious career woman (Anne Hathaway, who is never more frightening than when she goes long stretches without blinking) how to be human again. Deniro plays Ben Whitaker, a chivalrous widower who used to work at a phone book manufacturing plant and is now, by way of some bizarre plot device involving what looks to be indentured servitude for senior citizens, acting as the intern to Jules Orstin, (Hathaway) CEO of fashion start-up About the Fit.

As with many heroines in traditional rom-coms, Jules is a humorless killjoy who… if she could just… find the right man… maybe… maybe she’d find a way to be free, and to live her life! Cue the shopping montages! Thankfully, Meyers doesn’t provide us with the solution in the form of a featurelessly hunky leading man, though Jules is saddled with the textbook definition of an agreeable hipster beau in the form of “Workaholics” star Anders Holm. Instead, we get Deniro’s gold-hearted old guy. Ben is the kind of gent who carries an elegant handkerchief with him everywhere he goes — you know, in case someone needs it. He’s so boundlessly, almost stupefyingly kind that as “The Intern” goes on, the movie really just becomes an elongated series of encounters where Ben greatly improves the lives of everyone he works with. There he goes, bolstering the ego of Jules’ put-upon assistant! Taking in a recently evicted co-worker! He even manages to strike up a rather charming romance with a massage therapist played by Rene Russo! This guy, it’s like he stepped out of a Frank Capra movie or something.

Like the underrated “Magic Mike: XXL,” “The Intern” is a movie that buzzes off the high of doing good for other people. That being said, “Intern” lacks that other movie’s stylistic verve, and some of its periodic lapses into tedium can’t really be ignored. An excruciatingly prolonged bit where Ben and his co-workers try and break into Jules’ mother’s house to erase an incriminating email is a total dud, and many of the supporting players, like Andrew Rannells as Jules’ smarmy corporate overseer, fail to leave an impression (veteran character actress Celia Weston is done no favors in a thankless role as Ben’s fellow senior intern). Hathaway commits to her part with visible gusto, though there are times when you want her to turn it down, particularly in a rambling and unfocused third-act confessional in a posh hotel suite. But the movie is loveable in its way, and it’s probably one of the more enjoyable movies Meyers has directed in years (it’s certainly better than “It’s Complicated”).

And at the center, there’s Deniro — gentle, childlike, bemused and unusually warm. It’s admittedly kind of a trip to see the usually more gruff Deniro in the role of an overgrown schoolboy: you think, did Travis Bickle finally grow up, give up the whole “god’s lonely man” routine, and join the emerging 21st-century tech boom? And yet, while he’s not committing at the same level that he would in, say, a David O. Russell movie, he’s also not phoning it in. Deniro’s Ben is a creature of real nobility and altruism: a screenwriter’s device brought to life by one of our greatest living actors. You know, when he bothers to kind of give a shit — so, in other words, not “Dirty Grandpa”. The actor’s graceful, knowingly silly performance is probably the best part of “The Intern,” which itself is a sweet, undemanding bubble bath of a movie that leaves you feeling good all over, and also just a little bit ashamed for having enjoyed yourself as much as you did.

If “The Intern” is a feel-good makeover of a movie, Eli Roth’s “Knock Knock” exists at the opposite end of the cinematic bell curve. It’s not just feel-bad: it’s feel-fucking-awful. This is a movie that, in spite of its many problems, earns its howls of outrage.

Granted, this is Roth’s preferred mode of operating. He’s a caustic provocateur with a taste for outsized acts of cruelty and picking the wings off the human flies that populate his movies. “Knock Knock” feels like something a bit different at first, and indeed, the first forty minutes of the movies make for perhaps the most engaging and conventionally satisfying stretch of Roth’s entire career thus far. In holding back and resisting the urge to venture into the kind of full-tilt gross-out affrontery that colors his flicks, Roth reveals strengths as a director that weren’t readily apparent before. But after this chilling introductory passage, the movie eventually topples onto itself into a muddled blend of maddeningly contradictory gender politics, unfunny black comedy and Roth’s signature brand of sadism.

Keanu Reeves plays our hero, Evan Webber. Evan is the 21st century “cool dad” archetype come to glorious, awkward life through Reeves’ blessedly unselfconscious performance. He’s the kind of guy who prides himself on his cool haircut, his cool art collection and most of all, his vinyl collection. When “Knock Knock” begins, Evan’s only desire is to get away with his wife and kid for a beach weekend. Alas, fate is a cruel mistress: a heavy workload has Mr. Cool Dad stuck at home for a long and fateful weekend. With the house to himself and pouring rain outside his door, Evan does what any cool dad would: fires up a bongload and puts on “Detroit Rock City” by KISS (on vinyl, of course).

Not long afterwards, two gorgeous young girls who are barely clothed and dripping wet from the rain greet Evan at his door. Their names are Genesis (Lorenza Izzo, Roth’s wife) and Bel, (Cuban actress Ana de Armas) and their bubbly laughter, cheerleader physique and menacing insinuations of sweetness somehow feel ripped from the wet dreams of an overstimulated teenage boy. In these early scenes, which occasionally recall the kinky and disturbing early dramas of Roman Polanski, (particularly “Knife in the Water” and “Cul-de-Sac,” both of which deal with manhood under attack and threats against the institution of marriage) Roth shows a gift for staging and building tension that I was not aware he possessed. Evan tries gradually backing away from his giggly, buxom new friends — into corners, other rooms, etc. –but it’s no use. Soon, the three are engaged in hardcore shower sex in Evan’s bathroom, all while Roth lets thunderclaps boom on the soundtrack and repeatedly cuts back to framed portraits of Evan with his family.

It’s this second half of the movie where all the agreeably nasty goodwill Roth has been building to eventually goes fuck-up. When Evan wakes up, genuinely ashamed, he finds that the girls have refused to leave his house. They vandalize his wife’s sculptures, raid his daughter’s closet… you get the picture. It’s a familiar riff on the same conceit Michael Haneke practiced in both his “Funny Games” movies, where hapless suburban twits find themselves at the mercy of homicidal goons whose true intentions may be a mystery even to themselves. But Roth never fully commits to the lunacy of Haneke’s more genuinely stomach-churning work — although at times “Knock Knock’s” lurid, overripe erotic rush brings to mind a lesser version of Brian De Palma’s seminal “Dressed to Kill”.

Reeves is uncharacteristically loose and funny in a role Nic Cage might have had a ball with: he even gets a throat-clearing monologue where he compares the young girls’ aggressive sexual advances to receiving a free pizza. I’m not sure whether it was Roth’s intention to have this scene play as funny as it does, but the way Reeves delivers it, I feel like he has to be in on the joke — otherwise, whoof. By the time Evan’s been buried up to his neck in the backyard, we’ve seen enough fresh depravity for two week’s worth of midnight movies. Roth is, as always, enthusiastic and eager to offend: “Knock Knock” is nothing if not defiantly un-P.C., which will come as no surprise to anyone who saw his half-baked stab at cannibal horror, “The Green Inferno,” which also doubled as an ill-advised screed against what Bret Easton Ellis might call “the emerging culture of inclusion”. And while individual bits and pieces of “Knock Knock” do succeed in their aim to shock and titillate, one can’t help but feel that when a director is working with material this potentially rich, results like this feel like a missed opportunity. “Knock Knock” is enjoyable in the moment, but in the long run, it’s probably about as healthy for you as eating an entire free pizza.

Grades: “The Intern” B-. “Knock Knock” C+

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