The Cinematic Squared Circle: Black Mass vs. The Intern

Despite familiar stars and multi-million dollar marketing budgets, Hollywood films are ultimately victims of circumstance. The very nature of critical assessments and (more importantly) box office returns forces movies of often very different breeds to do battle for the hearts and minds of the movie going public. In this debut entry of “The Cinematic Squared Circle”, we will be taking a look at the crime drama Black Mass and the comedy The Intern.[1] One is about a deranged mad man fighting desperately to claw his way to the top of his field. And the other is a gangster movie featuring Johnny Depp. I and I alone set forth the arbitrary criteria these two movies will be judged by. Two movies enter. Only one will leave.[2]

  1. Round One- Vague Titles:

Both movies feature titles that offer little in the way of describing the movies. But let us start out with The Intern. Nancy Meyer’s latest flick tells the story of Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro), a widowed retiree who takes a senior outreach internship position with an up and coming fashion e-commerce company. Ben works directly under the founder and CEO Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), a brilliant but stressed out taskmaster who is having trouble navigating her professional and private lives. Throughout the movie, the wizened Ben pushes Jules to restore her self-confidence to successfully take back the reigns of a life threatening to go off the rails. Along the way, Ben also shows his fellow millennial coworkers a thing or two about life as an adult.

Obviously, the title of The Intern lets us know that the movie is about…an intern. But not just any intern: THE intern. The obvious comedic value of a senior citizen being thrust into a group of fast talking, multitasking millennials is mined for satisfactory effect. However, the vague title of The Intern almost sounds like an ominous moniker for a horror movie. Maybe this observation leaps to mind since The Visit only came out a few weeks ago but the lineage of horror movies featuring “The _____” seem at odds with the lighthearted but emotionally grounded comedy.[3] The Intern could have easily turned into a movie about a poor elderly gent subjected to the horrors of young adult angst, forcing the geriatric to come to terms with his own mortality in the face of his own personal withering. Luckily, Ben (and by extension De Niro’s mole) stay as vibrant and chipper under pressure as ever before.[4]

Black Mass, on the other hand, is a dark meditation on the price of violent compromises in an ever tightening world. Johnny Depp returns to form as Whitey Bulger, the infamous kingpin of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang. The crux of the movie involves the thorny alliance of Bulger and the FBI, with the former providing himself as an informant to the latter in exchange for protection from local and federal authorities. The FBI is principally represented by John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood friend of Bulger whose lopsided deal with the criminal mastermind allows Connolly to rise through the federal ranks at the expense of his personal integrity.

As a title, Black Mass is even more mysterious than The Intern. Contrary to what the title would have you believe, it is not a biopic about the life and times of Gabourey Sidibe. Being set in the Irish Catholic conclave of Boston, the gangster movie is weakly trying to invoke, you know, “mass”: a colloquial term for a regular religious ceremony. Additionally, the color “black” almost universally connotes as negative, invoking death, loss, or evil. Anyone who is aware of Whitey Bulger in even the slightest context would identify him as a depraved, inhuman psychopath. In so many ways, he is the literal “black mass” of the movie: an unnegotiable cancer that responds only to aggressive action. Even so, Black Mass as a title feels like a half-baked name dreamed up in in a cushy executive suite in Burbank. Whitey should have taken a white out to this one.


Round One Winner- The Intern

  1. Round Two- Likability of Leads:

I would understand your thinking this game is rigged by following up with a category like this. But let’s run though it anyways. De Niro’s Ben is almost perfect to a fault: he masterfully completes any and all tasks an initially reluctant Jules throws his way, tosses aside Jule’s wino driver in favor of himself (who by the way is an expert on New York City’s complex roadways), and offers sage advice to both Jules and his young coworkers.[5] Depp’s Whitey, on the other hand, is an emotionally remote lunatic who gets his kicks by selling arms to the IRA or threatening to whack a guy just for spilling the beans on a secret family…recipe. Ben is like your favorite grandfather who never fails to bring a smile to your face merely by his presence. Whitey is that weird uncle you see every once in a while who sits in a corner and laughs unabashedly at American Horror Story before promising to kill you when you want to change the channel.

dark depp

Round Two Winner- The Intern

  1. Round Three- Forced Romantic Subplots:

While The Intern was threatening to sweep, it now sees itself on the losing side of an argument. Early on, Ben makes it clear (via voice over) that the loss of his wife has left an absence in his life. After casting aside advances from an older neighborly friend, Ben falls for the company’s in-house masseuse Fiona (Rene Russo). The film abandons and revisits this thread whenever it’s convenient, making it an easily trimmable segment that could have made the movie either lighter or freed up more time that could have been devoted to Jules and her various struggles. It’s nice, on paper, for The Intern to take an interest, albeit passing, in senior citizens pursuing relationships that thought had passed them by. But in the end, Ben and Fiona’s romance could have been jettisoned entirely and the movie would have been better for it.

In comparison, Black Mass is too cool a customer to be bogged down in unearned romantic dalliances. The closest it comes to one is brief glances the strain Connolly’s unholy alliance with Bulger has on his marriage. Sure, those scenes were fairly conventional but the movie appears to be bored with them too, as they seem to be there solely to go through the inevitable motions that these relationships would suffer through. Whitey himself seems totally uninterested in his own marriage. It falls apart early on after debates about his son’s vegetative state from Reye Syndrome[6] have his wife wanting to pull the plug while Whitey is absolutely repulsed by such a decision. After their breakup, Whitey devotes his life solely to making money and brutalizing others, making him even more of an unconventional underworld figure who sees romantic entanglements as just that: entanglements.

black mass gun

Round Three Winner: Black Mass

  1. Round Four- Variety of Boston Accents:

Much like the “likability round”, this is a lock beyond measure. Black Mass has a wide ranging chorus of turns-of-phrase that drip thicker than clam chowder in Fenway Park. Benedict Cumberbatch, in what little scenes he has, probably does the best overall rendition while Edgerton (who has much more screen time) does an admirable delivery. Depp’s physical transformation is so pronounced that you’ll find yourself much more focused on his look and mannerisms than his voice, which is still serviceable. Meanwhile, De Niro, Manhattan’s favorite son, wouldn’t be caught dead sounding like some deadbeat from Southie. He’d rather take a loss here than forgive and forget the Boston/NY rivalry.


Round Four Winner: Black Mass

After four rounds of intense competition, we find ourselves at a tie. Again, both these movies are entertaining, satisfying times at the movies that you are likely not to regret. However, if interrogated at gunpoint (likely by Whitey Bulger), I would side with Black Mass, already a serious awards contender that will be very present in end of the year best-of-lists and Academy Award ballot boxes. For all its generational warfare, The Intern is ultimately just a light comedy that takes pleasure in the simple things of life.[7] With the opening of fall movie season upon us, it may be a better choice to go with the movie more primed to win awards, making you THAT guy at the Oscar party who can say “Oh, I saw that.” But in the end, if you want to leave the theater in a good mood about yourself and those around you, The Intern should be your preferred choice.[8]

Regardless, The Intern’s Ben is just the type of character who would take a defeat such as this in stride with his signature smile and “we’ll get em’ next time” spirit. Black Mass’s Whitey would see such a victory as a given that finds this very topic’s disputability insulting. Still, it’s better to give him what he wants while you still can.

black mass

[1] Oddly enough, both are Warner Brothers productions. In that regard, both movies win. Or lose, depending on how you look at it.

[2] The other will probably just step out for a smoke break.

[3] The Invisible Man, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Thing, The Others…the list goes on and on.

[4] Once you see the De Niro mole, you cannot unsee the De Niro mole.

[5] He is, in effect, the magical mystical De Niro.

[6] I swear, by the way, that this sentence was my own and that I took to Wikipedia to recall the name of disease. Much to my surprise, I found an almost word-for-word description of affairs that matched my own. Darn you Wikipedia!

[7] Certainly nothing wrong with that.

[8] See, I told you they’re both winners!


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