Any time a film is made on the headquarters of a large company, relying on their cooperation, it’s inevitable that the finished product plays at least somewhat like an advertisement. Such is the case, mildly, with Shawn Levy’s occasionally uproarious, warm-hearted The Internship, a comedy set in Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters. But putting aside the guided tours the movie gives us of the quirkiest attributes (slides! Nap pods!) that supposedly define culture inside the Googleplex, a late-film discourse on all the awesome qualities that constitute the unique talents of the Google employee, and even a half-tongue-in-cheek assertion by one of the characters that the search engine has made him a better person, the tech giant soon becomes just a background setting for the more interesting comedic hijinks the filmmakers have in mind.
And hijinks there are, thanks to Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, who star respectively as Billy and Nick, a pair of lifelong friends and professional salesmen who find themselves out of work when their mom-and-pop company closes. Frustrated with their lack of direction in life, the duo soon signs up with a much larger concern, scoring an internship at Google after engaging in a legitimately riotous video chat which takes place, on Billy and Nick’s end, at a public library. When the two arrive at the Google complex, not only are they by far the oldest interns, but amid the pack of young, humorless strivers, their anything-goes attitude makes them instantly unpopular. When teams are chosen for a weeklong challenge, a competition that will land the winning group guaranteed jobs at the company, the pair ends up rounding out the team of outcasts.
The setup is rife for milking the generation gap to score easy points and easier yuks. But while the divide between Billy and Nick and their younger counterparts does indeed provide the film with its narrative and thematic thrust, Levy and screenwriters Vaughn and Jared Stern show a broader and more sensitive understanding of the cultural differences between the two groups of characters. These differences are first mined for broad comic effect during a very funny scene in which the interns are quizzed on the rules of the company. When questioned about whether such possibilities as drinking with your boss or dating a co-worker are permissible, the young interns immediately respond in the negative, leaving Billy and Nick baffled as to the company’s uptightness. Buoyed by Vaughn and Wilson’s terrific comic rapport, which often has the latter providing offhand commentary to the former’s more boisterous appeals, the scene smartly comments on the inevitable self-seriousness of millennials who have to struggle simply to land a job and who have no time for the antics of their older counterparts.
In the end, this is a movie about different generations educating each other, but it never seems rote. Specifically, it’s about Billy and Nick teaching their younger colleagues to loosen up, put away their iPhones, and engage with the actual world. They accomplish this goal with another memorable set piece in which they take the rest of their team out for drinks and wind up in a (PG-13-appropriate) strip club. Except for the misstep of a fight with some townies, which shows up Levy’s lack of directorial chops, the scene is humorous without feeling the need to go unnecessarily over the top. Furthermore, unlike most scenes of “fun” in similar comedies, as the characters loosen up and begin dancing, they genuinely seem to be having a good time.
Later, reflecting on their own experiences growing up in the ’70s, Billy and Nick comically recall their personal difficulties coming of age in a far less regulated environment, but one that didn’t breed the cynicism that defines the younger generation. Any such cynicism, though, is absent from the film, which manages to bridge the generation gap through understanding and a sense of humor that refuses to engage in mean-spiritedness. If in the end, the ultimate goal for the film’s characters is to become corporate lackeys (a point punctuated by a late-film crane shot that lingers on the Google sign on the campus headquarters), then at least the movie understands that having a job is itself an accomplishment for a generation of recent and soon-to-be college graduates, an achievement whose significance is poignantly underscored by the enthusiasm with which a minor character expresses his absolute elation at finally scoring employment.