Inside the film “The Internship” is a potentially very funny, satiric and deeply insightful commentary struggling to emerge about the nature of work in the new digital age. The story is simple and yet appealing to “middle America” (or middle Australia for that matter): two guys in their early 40s, Nick Campbell (Owen Wilson) and Billy McMahon (Vince Vaughn, who co-wrote the screenplay), have been laid off from their watch distribution company in Georgia (okay, think, the southern suburbs of Adelaide, then). They struggle to find meaningful work in the new digital economy. (Anyone recognise this situation? I sure do.) Nick even swallows his pride and goes to work for his brother-in-law, a sleazy mattress store owner (Will Ferrell).
But here’s where fantasy comes in: Nick and Billy apply – as a pair – for an internship at Google in California, have a Skype video interview from a public library (no less), and successfully bullshit their way in, despite knowing almost nothing and saying even less (see footnote below). Apply as a pair? To Google? Set aside the unreality here, there is something very satisfying for those of us who are not truly exceptional to think that perhaps we could make it into a Google internship, and from Atlanta, no less.
All power to “The Internship” for engaging with what I call “the present moment” of the rapidly changing workplace. The film also contains some wonderful pop culture, social and literacy references that I do not recall having made it into mainstream films before. My favourite is the scene that quotes Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which is about why highly successful people achieve their success despite extraordinary competition.
“The Internship” also is, in its own sweet way (and it is sweet), a film about northern California. I have written separately about how northern California and the Silicon Valley IT industry promote the concept of “abundance”; “The Internship” inhabits this world perfectly. But it goes further, providing us with delightful shots of scenic San Francisco, a sort of Edenic paradise where the sun always shines and the food is free (at least at Google). In one scene, a team of Google interns are sitting and lying on a headland in Marin County overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and looking back to San Francisco. If you know the geography of this location, you have to wonder, “how did they get there?” It’s an awfully long walk (hours, really) from the nightclubs that they had been visiting in the city in the previous scene. Okay, “it’s only a movie” (quoting Alfred Hitchcock, who reportedly said that to actor Ingrid Bergman).
Ultimately “The Internship” has some great ideas wrapped up in a script that too often takes the easy way out. We have a long Harry Potter-ish “Quidditch” match, a very long nightclub scene, and a bunch of good guys/bad guys set ups. (Max Minghella plays the nasty “bad” cheating intern.) The good ideas? The film nicely illustrates the value of salesmanship, relationship management and customer engagement, as well as the importance of wisdom, experience and strategy over short-term tactics, arrogance and youthful naiveté.
In one true-to-life way, “The Internship” does capture the structural re-adjustment of work in our time: in the film there appear to be about 100 interns vying for only five places at Google. The ephemeral nature – what Ross Perlin describes in his book Intern Nation as “the ugly new culture” of internships – is on full show here. I wonder if Google, which apparently approved the script and helped the production, truly understood the nature of what they were endorsing, by showing publicly the cut-throat and frequently unpleasant nature of internship practice.
Despite all that, “The Internship” ends on a triumphant note. Yes (Spoiler here! Don’t read any further if you don’t want to know the ending!), our heroes are part of the winning team and get the jobs. But the rest of them, the other 95, they all “lost”, right? They don’t get the jobs. It’s not “win-win”. In fact, it’s very win-lose, and most of them lose. This is a trend with many current films, where we are meant to celebrate triumph, but it’s actually disaster. In “Man of Steel”, the bad guys lose – but New York City (and who knows where else?) has been devastated, with the loss of tens of thousands of lives. In “World War Z”, the zombies are defeated – well, almost – but the world is a shadow of its former self.
The disaster in “The Internship” is not the other 95 interns. They are bright young things with great educations from Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Duke and the rest. They will probably all get good jobs, just not at Google. No, the disaster is the changed nature of work, and the mattress salesman from Georgia or southern Adelaide. He is not likely to find meaningful work in this age, if he can find any work at all as he ages. And no amount of movie fantasy can change that.
Nick and Billy’s successful application for the Google internship reminds me of a possibly fictional story about the writer Gertrude Stein. Stein studied with philosopher and psychologist William James at Radcliffe College (part of Harvard University) from 1893 to 1897. As the story goes, on her final philosophy examination paper one fine spring day, Stein handed the paper back in with only these words written: “I don’t want to take this exam. It’s too nice out.” To that, James supposedly replied, “Miss Stein, you truly understand the meaning of philosophy”, and gave her an “A”. I understand that generations of students have attempted to imitate Stein’s “stunt”, probably all of them without success. But “The Internship” hews to the line that a few words of bullshit can cut through anything and get us in to Google or the “A” at Harvard. The problem is: very few of us are Gertrude Stein, and extremely few of us are dealing with William James.