By Rob Cox The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
Rarely has a cinematic depiction of a business delivered as wet a kiss as “The Internship,” a new buddy film. Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson play second fiddle to the real star: a silver screen version of Google’s corporate culture. The movie makes the Internet firm – unofficial motto: “Don’t be evil” – look less evil than is remotely plausible.
It’s all a far cry from the real world of January 2012, when Silicon Valley and Hollywood went to war. As Congress considered a bill supported by the Motion Picture Association of America, the Stop Online Privacy Act, around 7,000 websites led by Wikipedia darkened their home pages in protest. Two days later, the bill was nixed.
Director Shawn Levy clearly has no hard feelings. Nor does studio Twentieth Century Fox, a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Almost every detail of the movie, which opens on Friday, feels intended to burnish Google’s self-professed non-evilness. “The Internship” is corporate capture on a big-screen scale.
There are no references to Google’s repeated infractions and boundary-testing in the area of privacy, its often dismissive attitude to other people’s copyright interests, or the growing concern among regulators around the world that it is becoming an entrenched monopoly. In short, the attention Hollywood often likes to give to the darker side of capitalism is completely missing.
It’s still mildly entertaining in that watch-it-on-a-long-flight way. Vaughn and Wilson play Billy and Nick, sales guys who lose their jobs selling high-end watches. Their skills, they’re told by their boss – played by John Goodman – are no longer useful: “Watches are obsolete and so are you,” he tells them as he’s liquidating the company. “You two are dinosaurs.”
So liberated, the two leading men reprise versions of their “Wedding Crashers” characters. Vaughn plays the grownup frat-guy charmer with a big heart, while Wilson is the ultra-sincere boy-next-door. Will Ferrell cameos as an awful mattress-store manager-oaf with the world’s most absurd facial tattoo.
After his girlfriend leaves him and his apartment is foreclosed upon, Vaughn’s character has an epiphany as he discovers Google’s internship program. Thus begins a rollicking adventure interlaced with two hours of advertisements for Google products, starting with an online interview of the candidates conducted via Google Hangout.
The intake of interns, miraculously including Vaughn and Wilson, must battle it out for full-time jobs, available to the five percent of the candidates exhibiting the most “Google-iness.”
The “Nooglers,” as the newbies are called inside the Googleplex, create teams and compete on a handful of challenges, each seemingly intended to boost one or the other of Google’s products, services or values. For instance, there’s the competition to create a new application for the Android mobile operating system.
And who knew Google had sunny interns manning telephone lines at its Mountain View headquarters? Check: a shout-out for the dominant search firm’s customer service.
Apart from the competition, life inside the Googleplex couldn’t be sweeter. Many gags are made of the free food. There are nap pods for taking a midday snooze. And senior execs get their laundry from a valet. The portrayal of Google’s perks should triple next year’s job applicants.
It is in the final test – sales – that the film’s protagonists shine. Nick and Billy prove their ability to “sell prosciutto to a rabbi” by convincing a local pizza-maker, who had dismissed other Nooglers’ entreaties, to market his pies online. The decision allows him to expand his business dramatically and open another restaurant nearby.
With this accomplishment, Nick and Billy show that their people skills are not in fact obsolete, and above all that Google’s most prized value is collaboration. A movie like this was never going to note the irony that the supervoting shares held by Google’s founders render any kind of collaboration among the company’s regular shareholders essentially futile. But even amidst the laughs, “The Internship” could have had some fun with the company’s more mainstream flaws. As it is, it blindly lets Google come off as nothing but a force for good.