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Google's Latest Product Isn't Free: It's Called 'The Internship'

It should come as no surprise that The Internship, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson's dude flick about being 40-something summer interns at Google, is a two-hour infomercial for the famously fun-loving company. As the Los Angeles Times reported recently, Google charged neither location nor licensing fees for the privilege of shooting at its edenic headquarters, but did enjoy veto power over its contents. Accordingly, the script fully buys into the company mystique: Intern teams competing for full-time jobs are told they'll be judged on their "Googliness," which one character describes as “the intangible stuff that made a search engine into an engine for doing good.” And when Wilson's love interest, a workaholic middle manager, says she puts in long hours because she thinks her job "makes peoples lives just a little bit better," we’re clearly supposed to admire her.

The film's advertorial nature hasn't gone unnoticed. Early reviews have focused on the movie's all-encompassing product placement, the Googleplex perks it highlights, and how it could be useful recruiting tool. (One critic even went so far as to suggest tickets to the movie, since it’s one long advertisement, should be given away for free.) It's all true: In the world of The Internship, Google is basically paradise, the pinnacle of modernity and meaning in work. No wonder the company’s head of HR is so happy with it.

But The Internship is far more than propaganda for Google's heavenly work environment (which it doesn't really need, as the world's second-most admired company). Whether screenwriters Vaughn and Jared Stern intended it or not, the movie's story arc actually embodies how Google wants us to understand its role in the world. 

The source of the film's dramatic tension is the central problem of our time: The digital disruption of old business models. Bachelor buddies Nick Campbell (Wilson) and Billy McMahon (Vaughn) lose their jobs selling watches when the entire company folds (the culprit is revealed when the boss' secretary uses her iPhone to check the time). And just like that, their face-to-face schmoozing skills have become obsolete.

Nick takes a job selling mattresses for his sister's boorish boyfriend (Will Ferrell), until Billy comes up with an insane plan: Become a summer intern at Google, first by enrolling in the University of Phoenix to satisfy the company’s "must be a college student" requirement. Nick decides to come along for the ride. "I want to do something that matters!" he says. After a stereotypically zany interview, the intern committee decides to bring on the dubious duo, in the name of "diversity."

When they arrive on campus, Nick and Billy seem painfully old. "It's scary because it's new," Nick tells Billy after the two are startled by a self-driving car—that quote being Google’s response, in so many words, to anyone who oppose its ideas. But not everything's rosy for the bright young things running around underfoot, either: The idea of full-time employment seems like an unattainable dream. Billy suggests their pessimism might just be a matter of perception. "It's not how we see it," says the perky intern Neha. "It's just the way things are now." When the intern class picks teams—the program, unrealistically, is a Hunger Games-style competition for real jobs—Nick and Billy are swept together with the other misfits who resent their presence. 

Hijinks ensue, villains are vanquished, bonds are formed, boys become men (courtesy of the obligatory, gratuitously long strip-club sequence). In the end, the team triumphs not by feats of technical prowess, but by selling Google's products to a grizzled pizza parlor proprietor who's been ravaged by competition from the giant chains. The pitch: With the power of analytics, targeted advertising, and geolocation, he can expand the franchise without sacrificing the farmers-market quality of his ingredients.

"Everybody's searching for something," Billy tells Sal, the pizza guy. "They're searching for you! We just want to help them find you."

That, neatly wrapped in a sentimental bow, is Google's best way of explaining itself to skeptics who say that technology is stealing all our jobs and turning the non-technical into serfs. Sure, centrally organizing the world's information and (usually) providing it for free might get rid of gatekeepers like salespeople and realtors and travel agents. But it also empowers the creators of stuff—pizza, journalism, pottery, whatever—and we consumers have nothing to fear but having too much to choose from (and Google makes that easier too).

In making that point, though, Google isn't entirely believable. In the end—spoiler alert!—Nick and Billy win the coveted jobs, but it's not at all clear what they'll be doing in their fantastical new workplace. Millions of jobs have melted away and still haven't come back, and people with Nick and Billy's kind of skills are still shit out of luck. AdSense, after all, doesn’t need legions of salespeople to sell itself.