Under-Appreciated Style Icons: Robert De Niro in The Intern

One of my guilty-pleasure movies is 2015’s The Intern starring Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway.

I’m not sure if it’s still the case but, before we went full streaming a couple years ago, this movie was on TV constantly. Like…“Shawshank Redemption-level” constantly.

It actually became a bit of a joke in our household. My wife and I would be in the process of deciding what movie to watch that night and one of us would inevitably say, with feigned surprise, “Oh, The Intern is on.”

For anyone who hasn’t seen it, or is too lazy to Google the plot, the movie is about a retired business executive named Ben (De Niro) who gets hired at a startup clothing company in Brooklyn. The company is run by the hard-charging Jules (Hathaway).

What drives the plot, mostly, is the fact that Ben is old and everyone else isn’t. There is a period of adjustment for both Ben and Jules given the fact that Ben has been out of the corporate game for so long. Little anachronisms like wearing a suit to work, or referring to higher-ups as “sir” are met with quizzical amusement by his coworkers.

This dynamic could quickly grow tiresome for the viewer, but thankfully, the movie doesn’t linger too long there. And honestly, the best scenes are when the hijinks slow down and we are left with De Niro and Hathaway just…talking.

Ben soon becomes somewhat of a father figure and mentor to those in his new orbit.

Surprisingly, this is often communicated to the audience via Ben’s clothes.

Ben’s suits, pocket squares, and attaché case all generate wonder and a little insecurity from his millennial, male coworkers.

They see Ben as a confident man with a wealth of experience. Something that they all eventually want to be, but are unsure of how to attain. They are rudderless until Ben provides them with direction, such as when he advises his younger coworker to tuck in his shirt if he wants to make a good impression.

Ben quickly ingratiates himself to Jules, not only by being a contributing member of her team, but by being demonstrably respectful of her using his clothes as tools to accomplish that end. Sure, Ben wears a suit to work, but he goes a step further by standing up and buttoning his jacket when Jules approaches his desk. She even says “You don’t have to do that.”

Also, Ben’s use of his handkerchief is a physical reminder of his gentleness and magnanimity.

There is a revealing scene in which Jules laments the fact that men no longer resemble Ben. Initially, she appears to refer to his clothes, but the clothes are just an outward manifestation of this “ideal” male’s inner character. Ben is stalwart and calm. He is reliable and kind. He has his shit together the way no other male character in the movie does especially Jules’s scummy, philandering husband (whose big problem in life is that he is married to a beautiful, successful woman, has an adorable, healthy daughter, and lives in a stunning Brooklyn brownstone). Jules offers up Ben as a guiding light for the other clueless dudes.

Jules is essentially surrounded every day by a gaggle of failure-to-launch doofuses. Ben, to her, is a breath of fresh air. After a friendly after-work conversation with Ben over pizza and beers, Jules tells Ben how much she appreciated having an actual adult conversation.

And that’s what Ben is: he is the other adult in the room.

Ben accomplishes all this with a remarkably simple wardrobe. If he had a more flamboyant or dandyish style, he wouldn’t be taken as seriously.

His suits and ties are relatively sober. His shirts are generally white or blue and sport button-down collars. Very “American Professional”. There is a short-sleeved dress shirt at one point which does give off some Dwight Schrute vibes, but keep in mind how hot it gets in NYC in the summer (Ben’s a practical man, after all).

His tailoring is very “middle-of-the-road” making it impossible to discern in what decade he purchased his suits. That’s a good thing.

His ease in whatever he is wearing suggests a man with the confidence to get things done. And it’s not merely performative, either. He wears a proper set of pajamas to bed and even brings his own robe when staying at a hotel.

His appearance is not all that dissimilar from another sartorial icon I highlighted recently: Calvin’s dad. They both have simple, well-curated wardrobes free from bells or whistles.

Ben’s suits and the way he uses them while interacting with his coworkers (like the aforementioned buttoning of his jacket) indicate that he uses his clothes as ways to mark things that are “important”.

Before his first day, he lays out his suit and shoes. Even when he is made aware of how casual the office dress code is, he responds “Absolutely” when asked if he is still going to wear a suit every day. To him, there isn’t a question. Work is special and men dress up to mark special things.

Using his wardrobe to concretely mark importance is likely, in part, why Ben has been so successful in his business career. A day at the office isn’t “just the same old thing”. He is mentally and physically prepared to get after it.

He advises his coworker to tuck in his shirt because there were probably times early in his own career when he needed to impress someone in power. And he probably did.

In a sea of casualness, Ben is a lighthouse.

Many men probably feel uncomfortable dressing up at work because they don’t want to seem out of place. They don’t want to clash with the company culture. But Ben doesn’t care about any of that garbage. That’s the way he likes to dress. He isn’t afraid to draw attention to himself because he has the skills to back it up.

Towards the end of the movie, we see one of the other young, formerly aimless, interns in a jacket and tie, indicating Ben’s influence. It shows that he now takes himself seriously. It shows that he has much more respect for himself. He looks like he could be ready for a promotion. He looks like a man.

The use of Ben’s clothes to communicate his steady and responsible nature is a lesson we should all heed.

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