The Problem With ‘The Internship’: It Isn’t Actually About Internships

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Before it lost out to Betas and Alpha House and it was packed off to wherever promising pilots go once they’re tragically passed over, Amazon original series hopeful Browsers showed us what a comedic take on the internship could be. Though obviously fiction — it’s a musical soundtracked by shamelessly tactless original numbers like “Someone With Whom Not to Fuck” — the would-be series’ basic premise rang true. The protagonists felt like exaggerated versions of real interns; their workplace felt like an exaggerated version of a real office. These are the minimum requirements for a solid internship comedy, and despite its name, The Internship does not meet them.

The movie’s plot is simple, a very slight twist on the bros-for-life comedy from the duo who practically founded the genre eight years ago with Wedding Crashers. Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson play Billy and Nick, two salesmen from somewhere in Middle America who get laid off by their lovable boss (John Goodman) because the economy doesn’t need people to sell things anymore… or something. In the leap of faith required by most by-the-numbers summer flicks, the audience is asked to believe that Billy somehow scores the two of them a joint interview with Google, that the BFFs somehow convince a Google higher-up (Aasif Mandvi) to give them a shot based on chutzpah alone, and that two 30-something guys would be willing to dive into the internship economy in the first place. Just like that, we’re off to Google’s sunny campus in Mountain View, where we supposedly get an inside look at the bizarre world of earnest undergrads scrabbling to get jobs from the perspective of two outsiders.

What Billy and Nick find in Silicon Valley is less of an internship and more of a demented summer camp. Interns are divided into teams, given a full-time babysitter in the form of a Google employee, and blatantly placed in competition with one another, competing in challenges that range to the vaguely realistic (Fix a bug! Build an app!) to the outright ridiculous (Play Quidditch! Sell ads!). The members of the winning team, and only the winning team, get guaranteed jobs at Google after they graduate, revealing Billy and Nick’s so-called “internship” for what it is: a cheap plot device to turn the complicated, messy process of looking for a job into a straightforward, movie-friendly competition. Forget any serious effort to satirize internships for what they actually are.

The Internship isn’t totally devoid of on-point portrayals of college students and our ever-present employment anxiety. Even if the execution was ham-fisted, I was pleasantly surprised that a character like Neha, the team’s sole female member, could make it into a mainstream comedy. She’s an archetype I see often on college campuses but rarely in pop cultural representations of them: the former nerd coming to terms with her own sexuality, equally comfortable flirting with our heroes and dropping words like “hentai” and “cosplay.” Then there’s the scene where the college-age interns share their fears about the changing economy that reads like the portrait of millennials that Joel Stein should have written. Never mind the fact that an internship at Google would probably guarantee a job somewhere after graduation, if not at the company itself: when Neha outright dismisses the idea of the American dream, every viewer under the age of 25 will know exactly what she means.

Unfortunately, these moments only serve to call attention to just how much The Internship leaves out. Obviously Google’s real internship program doesn’t provide a realistic example of the way most internships work: it’s paid (and well), it requires highly specialized skills, and it comes with many of the perks that the company is legendary for handing out to its employees (an acquaintance of mine is currently being put up for free in prime San Francisco real estate). But that just raises the question: why set the movie at Google at all? Why not let its characters have an experience that’s more representative of what interns go through — and save the producers millions in naming rights to boot? (Side note: whatever mind-boggling amount of money they spent just to toss out words like “Gmail” and show self-driving cars, it’s not worth it — Arrested Development did just fine with its thinly veiled version of the web giant.)

At this point, internships are as ubiquitous a part of the college experience as frat parties, and showing an idealized version of them isn’t just tone deaf: it’s bad comedy. The worst part of watching The Internship is realizing what a missed opportunity it is to take aim at some of the most patently ridiculous parts of the whole practice. Most obvious is the fact that many companies use interns as unpaid labor, often with no intention of hiring or even training them. Then there’s the tropes that surround interns themselves: the painfully earnest try-hard; the boss’s cousin’s stepdaughter; the post-grad trying to beef up his resume after double majoring in classics and anthropology. None of these are present in The Internship; instead, we get another kids-these-days caricature who can’t tear himself away from his phone and a nauseating example of the Model Minority stereotype, emasculated by his tiger mom.

Sure, the idea of an internship comedy that actually satirizes internships threatens to morph from comedy to preachy morality tale. But this argument would only hold water if we didn’t have some solid examples of what such a comedy would actually look like. There’s the aforementioned Browsers, of course, but there’s also the pilot episode of Girls, which eviscerates the publishing internship in two short, devastating scenes. “I’m so sorry you don’t have anything more to learn from us” and “But she has Photoshop!” remain two of the funniest lines of the entire show for me, and with good reason: those statements aren’t just insane, they’re completely realistic.

It’s probably asking too much to expect a feather-light summer flick to give audiences some social commentary along with its bland redemption story. The Internship’s shortcomings may be expected, but they also point to a need for more depictions of internships as they are, not as they would be if they were run like a G-rated Hunger Games. Today’s interns fit squarely into The Internship’s demographic, after all, and it’s in studios’ interests as much as ours to make the internship comedy happen.