Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are both veterans of double-act shtick, each having buddied up with, for instance, Ben Stiller, Jon Favreau or Jackie Chan, often productively. But their chemistry together, first kindled in Wedding Crashers (2005) and revived for The Internship, has a particular warmth to it. So often buddy comedies depend on antagonism and opposites; Vaughn and Wilson succeed by going the opposite way, by appearing to truly enjoy each other’s company. Vaughn gabs furiously and Wilson has a slower drawl, but their characters are mutually appreciative of each other’s bullshit.
In The Internship, they reunite almost effortlessly enough to disguise the eight-year lapse since their last comedy—and the already-dated premise of this one. Vaughn and Wilson play Billy and Nick, wristwatch salesmen abruptly made obsolete when their company closes down. Desperate for a fresh start, they bluff their way into an interview for a competitive Google internship. The interns are divided into teams, who will compete against each other all summer; members of the winning team will be offered real-life jobs.
Their age qualifying them as diversity candidates, Nick and Billy squeak into contention opposite dozens of overachieving college students. Outsiders also because of their lack of skills, they’re stuck with a motley crew of skeptical, ambitious youngsters, forming a team of instant underdogs. The Google campus and the youth of the other interns make it easy to compare this movie to any other college comedy, but The Internship has even more in common with a summer-camp picture like Meatballs, setting a ragtag group of misfits against a rival team with a cartoonishly evil leader (here played by Max Minghella), through a set of physical challenges (with Quidditch subbing in for a softball match or boat race).
In their group, Billy and Nick are old school, which is to say, clueless about technology. This seems a strange for 40somethings in 2013; frankly, it would have even seemed a little odd back in 2005. Still, that implausibility is forgivable in so far as the movie needs a sharp contrast to generate jokes. Billy’s yammering insistence that the new app he just thought of is completely different from Instagram (it isn’t), for example, is amusing if not laugh-out-loud funny, a description that might apply to much of the movie. It’s pleasant, not hilarious. It’s also decidedly different in temperament from Wedding Crashers, which mixed great Vaughn-Wilson riffs with plenty of hacky material about foulmouthed grandmas and crazy homosexuals. Fans of that R-rated movie may see this PG-13 version as an edgeless sell-out; the wedding-crashing guys wanted to party and get laid, while Billy and Nick want professional fulfillment from the get-go—a goal the movie positions, in a decidedly non-satiric and anti-anarchic way, as most attainable through the modern paradise of Google employment.
The movie’s relentless Google-boosting isn’t just egregious and uncritical product placement; in a comedy, it counts as a missed opportunity. Why not make up the company supplying the coveted internship and possible employment? Of course, a fake tech company modeled on Google might have required greater budgetary resources. More importantly, though, it almost certainly would have required more invention from credited screenwriters Vaughn and Jared Stern. If there’s exaggeration on display in the movie’s portrayal of the Google campus, it doesn’t seem intended as comic; only the characters’ reactions are vaguely funny. At Google, the movie repeatedly implies, dreams come true. A broke Vaughn wolfing down free Google-provided food is sort of funny, but it also feels like a hipper, healthier version of the fast-food placements that dot so many Adam Sandler movies.
Sandler seems to be a model of sorts for Vaughn. Both did distinctive, freewheeling comic work early in their careers, and both have settled into domesticated, suburban versions of themselves in middle age, designing their own CBS sitcom-level vehicles, a kind of comedic conservativism. Billy, replete with ‘80s movies references and tech-related malapropisms (he keeps saying “on the line” instead of “online”), fits that template, but The Internship feels fresher than the likes of Couples Retreat or Four Christmases, in large part due to Vaughn and Wilson’s relentless, often ridiculous optimism. Billy and Nick’s genuine desire to succeed and make friends—Billy even breaks genre convention by repeatedly attempting to befriend the stern authority figure Mr. Chetty (Aasif Mandvi), rather than conspiring to push him into a pool—fuels the movie’s underlying sweetness and dissolves some of its built-in cynicism.
What’s really missing, then, is a more substantial batch of laughs, which are not the forte of director Shawn Levy. In some ways, Levy’s recent comedies like The Internship and Date Night represent a major improvement over his earlier work like Cheaper by the Dozen, but only in the sense that he now allows his stars to improve the movie, without doing much to help them. Look at the film’s opening scene, where Billy and Nick psyche up for a sales call by listening to Alanis Morrissette’s “Ironic.” Nick has reservations at first, but Billy explains that he has to change the songs on the psyche-up mix periodically, to keep them on their toes. In a longer two-shot, the progression from Nick’s ambivalence to a two-man sing-along might have built up to a big laugh—but Levy cuts the scene into awkwardly shaped pieces, then rushes away from it to get the plot moving (Wedding Crashers, by contrast, let its introductory scene play out because while it didn’t inform plot, it did explain the characters). Levy’s competence levels are so inconsistent that when he does something clever, like a series of cutaways to a restroom sight gag when the interns go out partying, it registers as a mild shock.
Without stronger direction, Wilson and Vaughn are most of the show here. The other interns are likable but poorly developed: Tiya Sircar’s cosplay-loving Neha in particular seems like she may have had some scenes cut to accommodate an already overlong movie, and Rose Byrne, having established herself as an able comic actress in Bridesmaids and Get Him to the Greek, must suffer a quick return to the thankless love-interest role. The Internship feels minor even by minor comedy standards. It would make more sense as the fourth or fifth Vaughn-Wilson adventure, rather than the second. But like the ‘80s movies Billy so self-consciously adores, it’s also easy to imagine catching this one on cable in a few years, and giving in to its watchable, goodhearted charms.