BACK in the days when computers were as big as fridges and adorned with whirring spools of tape, Peter Ustinov starred in an amiable comedy called Hot Millions, about a businessman who makes a fortune through computer fraud. I remember it as the first film in which computers, hitherto a malign presence in space thrillers and disaster movies, were used for comic purposes.
There have been other movie landmarks in the cyber story. You’ve Got Mail was a Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan romance in which emails — still something of a novelty in 1998 — played a key role in the story. With The Social Network, filmgoers were given their first insight into the beginnings of Facebook and its pioneering entrepreneur Mark Zuckerberg.
Now we have Shawn Levy’s comedy The Internship, about two buddies — Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn — who wangle temporary jobs at Google, the internet search engine based in Silicon Valley.
Surely it won’t be long before Jerry Bruckheimer comes up with a 3-D summer blockbuster about the rise of Twitter featuring a couple of my favourite action stars, Denzel Washington and Penelope Cruz.
Much of The Internship is set in Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, on the outskirts of San Francisco, and the place looks like a kind of hi-tech fun fair, tricked out with gadgets and glowing colours. Those wanting to descend from the mezzanine level to the ground floor can make use of a slippery dip; those wanting moments of quiet reflection can retire to a nap pod, a little space-age capsule where rest and privacy are guaranteed. Food and drink are dispensed free to Google workers in the foyer. It looks like a great place to work. And the competition for jobs is intense. Every year, it seems, hundreds of college graduates with degrees in physics and mathematics compete for a handful of internships. You wouldn’t put money on Wilson and Vaughn cracking the prize, but somehow — with a mixture of bluff, bluster and bullshitting skills — they make the grade.
Levy’s film has been described, not unfairly, as a two-hour Google commercial. Firms that once paid good money for a five-second product placement in the latest Bond movie are bound to feel hard done by. (You wonder if Apple had to pay for the brief glimpses we get of iPads and iPhones in The Internship, but I doubt it.) None of this would bother me if The Internship were really a film about Google. I could have done with some passing insights into the company’s inner workings, its factselection methods, its filtering and checking processes, not to mention the activities of its chief executive and co-founder, Larry Page. But Google’s HQ is no more than a colourful backdrop for the film’s rather flimsy story.
When we first meet Billy (Vaughn) and Nick (Wilson) they have been doing it tough as watch salesmen. Among members of the cyber generation, it seems, no one wears wristwatches any more — a fact easily proved when their boss (John Goodman) asks a young office employee for the time and she immediately consults her phone. When Billy has the idea of seeking internships at Google, the boys realise their undoubted talent for selling goods can be used just as effectively to sell themselves. Duly enrolled as online students at the University of Phoenix (majoring in physics), they turn up for the Google selection process and immediately arouse the suspicions of their supervisor, the formidable Mr Chetty (Aasif Mandvi). To qualify as interns they have to pass a series of tests — webcam interviews, designing a new phone app, handling a Google help line and signing up at least one new client to advertise on Google.
The screenplay (by Vaughn and Jared Stern) is relentlessly fast-paced and spiced with some fine one-liners. I’ve always thought Vaughn and Wilson two of the best natural comedians in the business and they don’t disappoint. Wilson’s air of innocent daffiness was well displayed in Midnight in Paris, the most charming of Woody Allen’s recent films; and Levy’s film proves to be an excellent vehicle for Vaughn’s plausible bluster. At another level the film works as a fish-out-ofwater comedy. Billy and Nick are twice the age of their rival hopefuls, prompting one to observe, ‘‘ You’re so old.’’ Inter-generational tension is part of the joke as well. One youngster complains to Billy that kids can’t get jobs any more — that the ‘‘ American dream is over’’. Is Levy pushing a political message here? In the spirit of the movie I googled ‘‘ youth employment US’’ and discovered that in February this year about 3.5 million young Americans were out of work — an unemployment rate of 16.3 per cent, compared with about 50 per cent in parts of Europe. (Is this relevant to the film? Probably not, but it shows how useful Google can be.)
With their natural savvy and powerful instincts for survival, Billy and Nick soon start mastering the inner mysteries of the cyberworld (or at least giving a good impression of doing so). Their new app design proves a winner (10 times as many downloads as their closest competitor), and there’s a funny scene in which Billy delivers a little lecture, repeatedly saying ‘‘ on the line’’ when he means online. It’s brought off in nicely deadpan style. His audience of young, ambitious geeks looks suitably bemused. There are times when The Internship plays like a high-school comedy.
But nothing ever hangs together. Rose Byrne provides a brief romantic diversion as Dana, a bright young Google exec to whom Nick takes a fancy. Dana, identified as an Australian, is always hurrying off to a meeting and uses the dinkum Aussie expression ‘‘ cheerio’’, which I haven’t heard for 30 years or more. (I must google it sometime.)
All that said, I enjoyed The Internship. It has energy and wit and an unflagging sense of fun. Googling ‘‘ Shawn Levy’’, I was reminded that he directed kids’ fantasy Night at the Museum and its sequel. A third instalment, directed by Levy, is due for the release next year. I’ll be surprised if there’s a sequel to The Internship, but Google will be the first to tell me if there is.
Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn