For a goofy, crowd-pleasing buddy comedy, “The Internship” is haunted by dissonant notes of melancholy that reflect the economic upheaval wrought by the information age. A promising premise — older guys trying to reinvent themselves at a technology company — is marred by its odd presentation as a two-hour infomercial for Google.
It’s the story of two hard luck salesmen, whose success is linked to their talent for good fellowship more than any specific skills or business acumen. Billy (Vince Vaughn) and Nick (Owen Wilson) are kicked to the curb when their supplier of wristwatches goes out of business. Nick gets work at a mattress store run by his sister’s spectacularly creepy boyfriend but is convinced by Billy to try to reach for something that means more than just getting by. That brass ring turns out to be a coveted internship at Google.
The choice of Google as the setting of “The Internship” is an irony worth some consideration. More than any other company, Google represents the sort of market disruption that has made dinosaurs out of guys like Billy and Nick — particularly in sales and advertising. It’s a cruel twist of the knife, then, to set up Google as a launching pad for the second careers of a pair of hard luck schmos put out to pasture because they don’t have the skills to compete in the digital age. Their lack of formal education, quantitative ability and programming experience make the two stand out as diversity candidates among a pool of accomplished geeks from top universities.
The Google campus provides a classic fish-out-of-water setting for Billy and Nick. They are oddly baffled by the Internet and ignorant of basic interactive technologies. At one point, when brainstorming ideas for a mobile app, Billy keeps saying “on the line” instead of “online.” They’re useless as programmers, but their internship is, improbably, about more than just devising ways for Google to expand and improve its product line. The interns divide into teams, and compete to win a handful of jobs that are available at the end of the summer. It’s a bit like the last act of “Old School,” but more drawn out and with plenty of product placement for Google products and services, and details about the perks of working in their colorful Mountain View campus.
The moderate success of the film is tribute to the energy and likeability of Mr. Vaughn and Mr. Wilson, and a talented supporting cast. Josh Brener brings a nerdy mania to the part of Lyle, the Google employee who shepherds the team’s efforts. Tiya Sircar is charming as Neha, the group’s lone woman, who hides behind a front of ludicrous sexual bravado. Best of all is Aasif Mandvi as Mr. Chetty, the head of the internship program and a tough, uncompromising taskmaster. Amid the competition, Nick finds time to woo Dana (Rose Byrne), a workaholic Googler who has stopped making time to have a personal life. The team is shadowed by villainous and opportunistic Graham (Max Minghella), who undermines the confidence of Billy and Nick by making light of their shortcomings at every opportunity.
“The Internship” is by turns sensitive and oblivious to the challenges faced by BIlly and Nick, and by the college students toiling at Google in the slim hope of landing a job there. In one oddly moving scene, Billy is prepping to work Google’s help desk, and pleads with Lyle for some kind of cheat sheet or boilerplate response, or even another number where he can send callers he is incapable of assisting. It’s a terrifying moment for a flim-flam man to be put in a situation requiring specific knowledge, and Mr. Vaughn doesn’t shy away from it. For a moment he’s like the salesman Shelley Levine in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” finally faced with a problem his natural glibness can’t solve. Soon the moment passes, and “The Internship” gets back to being a feel-good comedy.
It’s not in the same league with “Wedding Crashers” or “Old School” — the raunchy humor is scaled back to achieve a PG-13 rating and probably to jibe with Google’s brand image — but it’s enjoyable enough. Probably the movie would have been better served by the model of a “Back to School” or “Caddyshack,” rather than dwelling on the theme of Billy and Nick as guys who are left behind in the new economy. This just serves to call out “The Internship” as an improbable fairy tale rather than a diverting comic lark.
TITLE: “The Internship”
CREDITS: Directed by Shawn Levy; screenplay by Vince Vaughn and Jared Stern
RATING: PG-13 for language, sexual situations and scenes of mild debauchery
RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS