The Internship: A Google-centric Guide to a Google-centric Movie

Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson star in a Silicon Valley comedy -- even though it was largely shot in Atlanta.

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20th Century Fox

Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn in The Internship

(Warning: spoilers below. If you haven’t seen this movie and don’t want plot points revealed, abandon this article for something safe like our slideshow of the cutest endangered species.)

I’m not a film critic. And this isn’t a review of The Internship, the new comedy in which Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson play two forty-something former watch salesmen who end up as part of an internship program designed for people less than half their age.

That internship program happens to be at Google, and most of the movie is set at the company’s Googleplex headquarters in Mountain View, California. I happen to write about tech. So I found myself at the movie on opening night, mostly because I was curious about its depiction of the Silicon Valley search behemoth.

You’ll have to read reviews if you want help deciding whether to see the film or not. I’m just here to try and answer some questions about its Google connection.

So without any further ado…

Does the movie accurately capture Google’s culture?

Directed by Shawn Levy with a screenplay by Vaughn and Jared Stern, this is, above all, a comedy about a couple of knuckleheads. It’s barely more of a revealing look at Google than Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle was a penetrating portrayal of its eponymous burger chain. Google is its setting, not its subject.

Except for Vaughn’s and Wilson’s characters, Billy and Nick — who I found both lovable and amusing, especially in the early scenes before they get to Google — most of the Googlers depicted are vague stereotypes. There are cursory references to “Googliness,” to making the world a better place and to diversity being in the company’s DNA, and the plot involves well-known aspects of Google life such as free food and tricky interview questions. (Supposedly, however, those questions are a thing of the past.) It all feels pretty superficial.

The story involves a brutally competitive, occasionally sadistic competition among teams of interns. Kyle Ewing, head of global staffing for Google, told my colleague Lily Rothman that the contest doesn’t exist and interns, in fact, are encouraged to help each other. Even so, Ewing says, the movie did a “great job” of portraying Google’s culture. (She didn’t comment on an interminable scene in the middle involving interns going to a San Francisco strip club, getting drunk and receiving lap dances.)

One thing that’s slightly unsettling, at least if you’re attempting to take the movie seriously, which you probably shouldn’t: Billy and Nick are portrayed as aging, technologically clueless and decidedly out of their element at Google. The entire premise of the movie is dependent on the fact that they’re way too old to be interns, but in Silicon Valley, ageism is real, and it kicks in for some folks by the time they’re in their forties. (Vaughn is 43; Wilson is 44.) I kept wondering how well a real Billy and Nick would do trying to get their foot in the door at Google or other companies in the Valley.

Of course, I’m not a Google insider, just someone who watches the company avidly from the outside. I’m still curious what Google employees who aren’t speaking for the company in an official capacity think of the film. (Caroline McCarthy, a former Googler — or “Xoogler” — reviewed it for TechCrunch and found it surprisingly perceptive.)

Speaking of real Google employees, are there any of them in the movie?

A hundred as extras, reports CNN’s Heather Kelly. And cofounder Sergey Brin, in two blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos, so brief that my wife and I are still arguing whether he’s wearing Google Glass. (Nobody else on the Google campus is, which definitively proves that this movie isn’t set in mid-2013.)

Any interesting casting?

Two guys named Josh, both who have experience in tech-related roles.

Josh Brener has a large role as a young Google employee; until I saw the movie, I knew the bespectacled actor only from his appearances in multiple Samsung Galaxy ads, including one for the Galaxy S III which I saw several times in movie theaters. I thought of Samsung every time I saw him in The Internship, making his appearance a sort of product-placement-within-the-product-placement.

Then there’s Josh Gad, best known to tech-movie fans for playing Steve Wozniak to Ashton Kutcher’s Steve Jobs. In this movie, he’s “Headphones,” a socially-awkward Google employee who turns out to be in charge of search. The character is definitely not a fictionalized version of Amit Singhal, Google’s actual search honcho.

Gad is endearing as Headphones, but even in a comedy-movie version of Google, I had trouble buying the proposition that the company would put him in charge of its largest business. But what do I know? No less an authority than Google CEO Larry Page says he’s the best character in the movie.

How much of the Googleplex do you get to see?

I recognized some of the campus from my visits there; you certainly get a sense of the place, especially in outdoor scenes with Googlers pedaling around on multicolored bicycles. But much of the footage set at “Google” was really shot at the Georgia Institute of Technology, not in Mountain View. The faux Googleplex looks adequately Googley to me, but has more enormous Google signs than I remember at the real one.

Which Google products are mentioned or shown?

Lots of them. Search (naturally), Gmail, Translate, Android, Google+, Chromebooks galore, others that I’m forgetting at the moment. Vaughn and Wilson’s characters conduct their internship interview via Google Hangout. Advertising on Google plays a pivotal role in the plot. A Google self-driving car makes a quick, amusing appearance. (Sadly, CNN’s Kelly says that the company asked the moviemakers to remove a scene in which one crashed.)

One other thing struck me as odd: our interns win a portion of the competition by writing an app which makes users do math problems to assure they’re not drunk-messaging anyone. That’s not an implausible comedic bit — it’s a slight variation on Mail Goggles, a bizarre-but-genuine optional Labs feature which Gmail introduced in 2008 and axed in 2012. In the real world, reviving Mail Goggles presumably wouldn’t win anyone any prizes.

How about references to other tech products?

Facebook, and online school the University of Phoenix are acknowledged in passing, Instagram (and its acquisition by Facebook) at more length. Ubuntu Linux gets name-checked, as do the Emacs and Vi text editors. Numerous Apple products are shown in use at the Googleplex, accurately depicting the real-world situation. If there are any mentions of Bing, I missed ’em.

How realistic is the depiction of technology in general?

For a Hollywood movie, not bad. But in an early scene, Vaughn seems to be using Google on a desktop PC which simultaneously has retina resolution — typography is perfectly crisp — and a clunky CRT display. Another computer is of the sort, common in movies, that has a monitor with the name of a real computer company (Lenovo in this case) marked on the back in precisely the right position for maximum visibility.

The bottom line: Is The Internship just an infomercial for Google?

I’ve been wavering back and forth. The idea originated with Vaughn, and Google didn’t pay anything to be in the movie. But the company did have some level of approval over its depiction, which is polite — even reverent. Though fictional and (intermittently) funny, the movie also has an official feel to it.

Give Google credit for its willingness to be involved in this idiosyncratic project: Apple would not have been, and I’m not sure if Microsoft, Facebook or any other large technology company would have played along. Still, you have to figure that if this film had been made without Google’s help, or was set at a fictional Silicon Valley search-engine firm, it would have been meaner, sillier, and, ultimately, better. It could even have been an Office Space set in a corporate Nirvana. If The Internship II comes to pass, maybe the whole darn thing should be shot in Atlanta without Google’s permission or involvement.