If it feels about 10 years too late to release a movie like The Internship, the new comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson as shoe-leather salesmen desperately trying to avoid obsolescence in an online marketplace, that’s because one actually was released, in 2004: In Good Company, Paul Weitz’s film about a middle-aged executive replaced by a new boss half his age. But the problem is that Vaughn and Wilson overestimate the value of personas that have already saturated their target market, which underscores the redundancy of their characters’ brick-and-mortar ambition in an Internet age.
A portrait of advancing-age desperation that doubles as odd meta-commentary on its stars, director Shawn Levy’s The Internship is a floundering, often painfully unfunny film whose chief unifying quality may be in alienating not just one but every generation it aims to connect with.
Vaughn and Wilson play Billy and Nick, two watch salesmen who learn from their (former) biggest client that the company they work for is closing shop. While scouring the Internet for new jobs, Billy stumbles across Google’s corporate profile, and fills out applications for himself and Nick to join the company as interns. But after narrowly being accepted into a program whose outcome includes possible full-time employment, the duo struggles to find footing under the endless scrutiny of manager Mr. Chetty (Aasif Mandvi), not to mention a small army of freshly graduated twentysomethings whose skills already outpace their own.
As they scramble to keep up with ruthless overachievers like Graham (Max Minghella), not to mention their reluctant teammates Stuart (Dylan O’Brien), Neha (Tiya Sircar) and Yo-Yo (Tobit Raphael), Billy and Nick are forced to come to terms with their skills, and especially limitations, as they try to find a place for their talents and ambitions in a world that seems to prize productivity over personality.
Written by Vaughn and Jared Stern (The Watch) from a story Vaughn conceived himself, it’s clear The Internship is meant to be a rejoinder to the conventional wisdom that age is cynical and inflexible, while youth remains pliable and optimistic. And, quite frankly, it’s an astute point to make: Without being oriented in the barrage of personal and professional possibilities – to say nothing of the ubiquitous technology — that threatens to swallow teenagers and young adults today, there are plenty of bona fide adults who possess a much deeper resilience, and sense of hope, than the generations of kids that follow them. And further, there’s something admirable both in concept and execution about middle-agers trying to keep up with their younger competition on their competition’s own terms.
But there’s a difference between characters that are upbeat, hard-working and thoughtful, and two guys who disguise their ineptitude with a nonstop string of metaphors, one-liners and anecdotes, which get enormously tiresome, even to audiences who have enjoyed them in the past. In an early competition to uncover the source and identity of a computer virus, Billy and Nick prattle exhaustively in the background about passwords and God knows what else as the rest of their teammates dig through lines of code and attempt to, you know, actually solve the problem. That there is a possibility – or a necessity — for a happy medium between handshakes and hacking is reassuring, and highlights the inherent value for teams, and individuals, to possess a broader set of skills. But why then are Vaughn and Wilson using the same ones over and over, without evidencing their own growth or development as performers, much less as characters?
Perhaps remarkably, and even at this late date, I’m a big fan of Vaughn; even after abandoning dramatic roles in lieu of a seemingly endless spate of goofy, wildly uneven comedies, he still demonstrates a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom, and to take an approach even to familiar material that seems unique or fresh. But even (wisely) positioning himself as a well-meaning mentor (rather than, say, love interest or contemporary) to a bunch of kids with too much knowledge and not enough experience, he does almost nothing here that audiences haven’t seen, either in the story he wrote or the role he plays.
That he thoughtfully handles some of the film’s more potentially hazardous scenarios, such as comforting a female companion when their team visits a strip club, is a testament to how sharply he can challenge storytelling conventions. But the fact that he reprises essentially the same role he’s played since Old School with only that marginal sensitivity as the key difference underscores how disappointingly unwilling he is to challenge himself.
That said, there is, again, something admirable about the film’s generally upbeat attitude regarding change and progress, and Billy and Nick’s ability to find the opportunity for greatness in every challenge they face. But the premise that Billy “always gets in his own way” – which is repeated multiple times as his cross to bear — quite frankly runs counter to every seeming impulse that either of these guys possesses. They’re enthusiastic, pro-active, strategic, and endlessly supportive of one another; how could they get so far afield of what the rest of the world wants that in 2013, they’re still watch salesmen with no other marketable skills than being “good in the room”?
I’d be lying if I said I never laughed during The Internship, and there are indeed a handful of funny scenarios, including a dinner between Nick and one of his bosses, Dana (Rose Byrne), which purposefully descends into a series of horror-story exchanges between the two after she insists he catch her up on a decade’s worth of bad dating experiences. But most of the humor falls into one of two categories – “what’s an interweb”-style goofs aimed at people “too old” to understand technology, and Big Bang Theory-level geek humor that underscores how pop culture-savvy but real world -naïve Nick and Billy’s younger counterparts are. And regardless of the insistent charm of its two stars and the story’s desperate bid for teaching universal, ageless life lessons, when the gamut of its exchanges ranges mostly from “get off my lawn” to “I’ve never seen a boob that I didn’t find on the Onternet,” it feels like a sign that The Internship ran out of truly relevant ideas around the same time that its characters discovered Google was a great place to work – namely, about a decade too late.