Vince Vaughn co-writes and co-stars in a comedy vehicle so shaped and crafted for its time that the film is practically delivered to audiences in shrink-wrap packaging.
"The Internship" is a parable about how teamwork and human connection remain prime virtues, even in a digitized and divided world marred by economic upheaval and cutthroat competition. Its starkest cry comes in the form of a question Vaughn's character, Billy, puts to his best friend, Nick (Owen Wilson), essentially to the effect of, "Aren't you tired of asking for just enough to get by?"
It's a question that will resonate with the bulk of workers in an age when, for many people, life is a matter of doing everything you can just to hang on by your fingernails. Billy and Nick play salesmen for a watch company that goes belly-up -- no one wears watches any more, their affable boss (John Goodman) tells them, because day, date, and time are all right there on the ubiquitous cell phone -- and, stranded in mid-life and in the midst of a radically pared-down and different job market, the two are faced with the prospect of working at menial tasks, assuming they are lucky enough even to scrape that much up for themselves.
These dire circumstances are the stuff of drama, and they could be stuff of comedy, too, if only the screenwriters (Vaughn came up with the story and collaborated with Jared Stern on the script) and director Shawn Levy weren't so gosh-darn determined to paint the film over with a glossy coat of scratch-proof optimism. Nick and Billy know absolutely nothing about technology, but that doesn't stop them from bluffing their way into an internship program at Google -- based on Google's real summer internship program, but depicted here as a shark-tank frenzy that pits hundreds of eager young college kids against one another in hopes of winning a handful of jobs.
Google is presented as a kind of workaholic wonderland, with "nap pods," an oversized playground equipment big enough for grownups to enjoy, and a cafeteria where everything is free. The company's workforce seems to be comprised entirely of 20-somethings who think, eat, and breathe nothing but computer code, "Harry Potter," and "Star Wars." (Geek chic is one thing, but honestly: Would even a Google girl get off on being addressed as "Khaleesi," a warrior-woman title lifted from "Game of Thrones?") There's even a Quidditch court, where the fictional game is played with as much competitive ferocity as any real sport -- say soccer, or rugby.
That game of Quidditch happens to be one of a series of contests in which the horde of interns, parceled out into small teams, engage: As this movie tells it, the Google career track starts not with a mere interview and six-month probationary period (that would be so 1980s, just like the songs and movies that Billy references, to the befuddlement of the Quidditch-playing younger cohort) but rather with a reality-show-style series of challenges.
It's with reality-show-level believability that the movie unspools -- Nick, the guy who can't keep a girlfriend, falls for a young and driven babe and even discovers a talent for computer code; Billy and Nick overcome the derision of their much younger teammates (all of them hard-bitten and anxious) by forging them into a group with a shared sense of purpose; the leader of the only other team that seems to matter is a bully with a hectoring manner and an English accent; the unlikeliest people turn out to be the strongest allies. Inevitably, a too-long sequence unfolds in which Billy and Nick deal with one especially tough challenge by taking their young charges out for a night of drunken debauchery that includes lap-dances and a brawl.
The movie wears its old-school heart on its sleeve, but its execution smacks of the same sort of lean and merciless energy that has become a cliché of corporate culture, and it's hard to shake a sense that we're being simultaneously patronized and shaken down. Movies are, of course, products, meant to be consumed and generate a profit; but they are also supposed to entertain and even inspire. To their credit, Vaughn and his cast might have hoped to achieve both. More's the pity they don't succeed. The film preaches to us about the value of having a life, a soul, and some degree of human connection, but the steady march of carefully honed story beats, none of them in the least original, fails to create the most essential connection, that of showman to audience. (It's a supreme irony that the film's two protagonists are supposed to be amazing salesmen.)
You can all but see the idealism flowing in the cast (which includes a cameo from Will Ferrell as well as Goodman), and the youthful actors are (mostly) sympathetic, especially when their characters open up about their bleak prospects unless they grab Google's golden ring. But those good intentions are swallowed in the script's tepid, lukewarm mush, and the two or three truly funny moments in the film don't redeem its two full hours of tedium.