Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Gallows Humor: The Internship

Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn in Shawn Levy's The Internship

Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn notched a hit eight years ago with The Wedding Crashers, by far the best of the so-called “Frat Pack” movies. It was 2005 and the American economy was still riding its illusory seat atop the housing and investment banking bubble. Wilson and Vaughn’s characters lead, accordingly, a similar carefree, fast-lane lifestyle – hot-shot Washington divorce lawyers by day, clubbing playboys by night. Life is one big party for John Beckwith (Wilson) and Jeremy Grey (Vaughn), who have never needed to learn about romantic love and commitment because they can score with women so easily. The movie’s setup cleverly symbolizes this conflict  they are near-professional crashers of random wedding receptions. While bride and groom consummate their nuptial love, Jeremy and John are off bedding bridesmaids for another one-night stand. Their growth into men ready for weddings of their own makes for the narrative arc.

The Internship marks Vaughn and Wilson’s reunion and in a way it’s a glimpse at what might have happened to their characters from The Wedding Crashers had church bells not sounded at the end. Billy McMahon (Vaughn) and Nick Campbell (Wilson) are salesmen when we meet them, and damn good ones at that. These guys can get a perfect stranger to feel like old drinking mates with them in minutes; in the opening scene they give the full treatment to a client. But the deal falls through when their boss (hilariously played by John Goodman) tells them the company’s folding – no one uses actual human salesmen anymore, he explains. With this shift, the movie reflects the country’s mood post-recession, with hundreds of thousands of blue collar male jobs having been shed. And from here on, it takes a comic look at what happens when such people explore the economy of the future.

The answer, for Billy and Nick, is to apply for internships at Google. They don’t know a lick about computers, but overwhelm their stupefied interviewers with an avalanche of bullshit so good (and funny) that they land two coveted spots at the Internet giant’s corporate campus in Santa Clara. There, they find themselves adrift in an ocean of 20-year old computer geeks  the sharpest wiz kids in the entire country. These nerds can practically launch a missile from their smart phones, and Nick and Billy flail helplessly as they and four teammates are put through a series of techie competitions against the rest of the plugged-in herd. And there’s the catch – these Millennials are lost so far in the Internet ether they have exactly nill when it comes to social skills.

Wilson and Vaughn
Billy and Nick seize on their advantage in this department, and it makes for both clever intergenerational humor and zippy commentary on the direction today’s young generation is taking society. On the one hand, we witness their ridiculous attempt to crack a password encryption through schizoid word-association while teammates Stuart (Dylan O’Brian), Neha (Tiya Sircar), Lyle (Josh Brenner), and Yo-Yo (Tobit Raphael) run algorithm circles around them. On the other, when it comes to convincing local small business owners to use social media, Billy and Nick demonstrate to their stuttering colleagues how to build an actual relationship with a flesh-and-blood human. They also lead these tightly-wound, frenetically competitive kids on a wild night that’s at once rite of passage, pseudo-sibling bonding, and no-regrets fun that you can’t help but enjoy.

As with all these movies, Vaughn and Wilson’s stream of consciousness banter is the glue. Wilson was fine in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, but he seemed awkward and a bit stiff on screen. He and Vaughn are thoroughly enjoying themselves here, though, and he looks both physically and mentally freer in his comic comfort zone. He provides the romantic comedy element, too, in his wooing of Dana (Rose Byrne), a Google executive. Their scenes are light, clever, and just original enough to avoid clich├ęs. That’s true of most of the movie, too (with the unfortunate exception of Yo-Yo, whose Asian American stereotypes come off tone deaf). Vaughn conceptualized the story and co-wrote it with Jared Stern, and they take an approach that’s breezy and safe. Veteran writers would round out the minor characters more, getting beneath the comic surface they ably establish so as to explore more poignant themes. We get a glimpse of this potential with Dana, for example, when she confesses to Nick her dissatisfaction with her career-driven life. But I can’t really fault the writers for not pushing the envelope – they’ve offered fare that's above the mindless raunch of earlier Frat Pack films and still keeps the laughs quick and smart.

Much of the credit goes, too, to director Shawn Levy, who made the Night at the Museum movies. His direction creates the same feeling you get when using Google itself – relaxed, fast-moving, slick, sleek. He presents the company’s headquarters as a giant amusement park, a kind of paradisial tech Disneyland with free coffee bars, twisty slides, and nap pods out of some sci-fi world. It’s a glimpse into a fantasy future land, and Nick and Billy find themselves returned to kid-dom upon arrival. It seems too good to be true, a reality that most of the jobless America they come from will never attain. “The very definition of the future,” Nick exclaims at one point, “is that it’s always ahead of you.” The real Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, blithely preaches a future of collective intelligence, a glorious techno utopia built on the fusion of the human mind with computers. I don’t think most of us would find comfort in this kind of future – Nick and Billy are what we’ll all become soon enough. The Internship is gallows humor for an age it barely intuits. Perhaps the smiles it sparks is the best medicine.

Nick Coccoma lives and writes in Boston, MA. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theater, philosophy, and religion at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College.

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