A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

Double Feature: Steve Jobs and The Intern

Time and chance make fools of us all, and that’s the closest explanation I can give for why I watched Nancy Meyers’s The Intern and immediately followed it with a viewing of Steve Jobs. Well, that, and I was spending the week with my grandmother, and wanted to watch a movie I thought she would like, and I knew she wouldn’t stay up for the second one. When it comes to screenplays my grandmother will probably like, Nancy Meyers is a safer choice than Aaron Sorkin.

And yet I’m glad that I watched the two movies back-to-back, as the total disconnect between them gave me some insight into how each movie works. Did it suggest that they’re not so different after all? No: they remain quite different films with different ideas. However, the things each film seems to value, and the degree to which is valued by the critical establishment, made for an interesting contrast.

The first major difference between The Intern and Steve Jobs is their understanding of history. Steve Jobs is about how much the world has changed in 30 years; The Intern is about how the world hasn’t changed that much in 50 years. The Jobs of Sorkin and director Danny Boyle’s film would probably be dismayed by Meyers’s insistence that a laptop on a man’s desk does not greatly change his obligations as a professional, as a a person, or as a man. In fact, a major through-line of Steve Jobs is how the title character, to a certain degree, fails at all of these obligations, and why that is.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming these films are of a similar quality. On a level of screenplay construction alone, Steve Jobs is clearly superior to The Intern, almost as much as you would expect the historical Steve Jobs to be superior to one of the interns in Apple’s design department. Sorkin’s script is an intricately-constructed high-wire act that boils down the three-act screenplay to its absolute essentials, and gives its actors enough room for at least five incredible performances. The Intern at one point has its two lead characters have a fun, heartwarming conversation on an airplane at the very moment they should be mistrusting each other, and what’s more, it shoots the conversation as a montage because it can’t actually think of anything these two characters would have to say to each other. It far too frequently reduces Robert DeNiro to mugging and Anne Hathaway to glowing.

But there’s something to be said for two stars with supermassive levels of personal charisma becoming friends and enjoying each others’ company, especially when placed next to a film full of people who can’t stop hating each other. Meyers may not have the same command of screenplay construction or extended metaphor as Aaron Sorkin, but she understands that, when you cast two incredibly likable actors opposite each other, you can get a ton of mileage out of letting them get along and be on the same team. Indeed, The Intern seems to struggle to find any sort of conflict. We see it toy with a misunderstanding here, before resolving it, figuring that these two characters are level-headed enough to work it out. We see it consider a geriatric love triangle before dismissing the idea as being too Hathaway-light. Eventually, it settles on a conflict external to Hathaway and DeNiro’s characters, deciding to float the idea that Hathaway’s husband is cheating on her, and it suggests–but never says outright–that she and DeNiro may have different ideas about what to do about that.

Conflict avoidance is disastrous in any relationship, especially the one between a filmmaker and her audience, and the story of The Intern doesn’t entirely hold together as a result. But there’s something undeniably appealing about the feeling the film generates, something warm and generous that makes us wish we could see more of these characters’ lives. And it’s this feeling of human connection that’s missing from Steve Jobs. The characters always feel like they’re designed to impress us and not endear themselves to us. This is a self-consciously Greek sort of theater we’re watching, where exemplars of human achievement pace the stage and boast of their ability to outpace the gods in their ingenuity and creative spirit. The entire film comes down to a single line Jobs utters near the end, “I’m poorly made,” and everything in the film leads up to him saying this line, and saying it at the time he says it, to the person he says it to. The achievement is something worthy of Jobs, embodying his love of beautiful design…and also the chilling sense of distance that kept anyone from ever getting truly close to him.

So I’m glad we have both these films, but, without going too deeply into it, we can agree that they serve two distinct ways of experiencing film, right? And that one of these ways of experiencing film seems much more “correct” than the other? The funny thing is, while Steve Jobs is the film that got all the critical praise, and the one that appeals to our intellect before our heart, almost nobody saw it. The Intern, meanwhile, made nearly $200 million. And it’s a little disturbing to me, that the film audiences seem to so greatly prefer is the same film that you’re most likely to get ridiculed for liking in cinemaphile circles. It seems like there’s a vast disconnect between what people are supposed to like and what they do like, and that’s scary because 1) It suggests that the whole edifice of critical opinion is being used as a lash to beat people for liking what they like, and 2) I’m deeply in the minority in what I like. I suppose all there is to do is to keep talking about film, and believe that there are a great many people out there who would like a film like Steve Jobs and just don’t know it yet.

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This entry was posted on 10 July 2021 by in The Glowing Screen and tagged , , , , .
July 2021

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