The golden age of American Nerd Cinema is easy to pinpoint: from 1983 to 1985. The biggest hit of that brief, three-year period was Revenge of the Nerds, the rousing tale of the Tri-Lambs’ triumph over the preppies; it even spawned three middling sequels. But there was also WarGames, the story of a hacker who almost causes World War III, and Weird Science, in which two techies create their dream girl. All of these films have their place in the Poindexter pantheon, but the most influential remains Real Genius, about a group of brilliant, quirkily cool college students duped by the CIA into creating a lethal laser.
The Internship, the latest buddy comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, continues Real Genius’s tradition of geek chic. The movie follows two failed salesmen in their 40s who try to reinvent themselves by managing to get admitted into Google’s (GOOG) summer-internship program. If they “win” the internship, they get full-time jobs at the company.
In the universe of this movie, Vaughn and Wilson are not losers, necessarily, but they are dinosaurs in a world that’s lost interest in what they’re good at, in this case, being wristwatch salesmen. Google is salvation. Not only is it the single greatest place a person can go to work, it’s where brilliant people go to do brilliant things. Google cooperated with the filmmakers—some of the movie was shot on the company’s campus in Mountain View, Calif., and co-founder Sergey Brin makes two cameos. (Mark Zuckerberg, who got The Social Network treatment, is likely refreshing his browser over and over in hopes that The Internship gets panned.)
Here, the nerds have become rich and powerful; they’ve also morphed into confident, charismatic, social creatures. The Google employees are direct descendants of the characters of Real Genius, the first major piece of pop entertainment to introduce the “cool nerd,” in the form of Val Kilmer’s Chris Knight. He was a brilliant laser scientist, but he also had sex! And wore ironic T-shirts! The nerd culture The Internship shows off—ambitious people who revel in their creativity and eccentricity—is a continuation of what we saw at the fictitious Pacific Tech in 1985. Some of these dweebs are even kind of tough.
Which makes The Internship interesting if you’re into charting the evolution of geekdom, but doesn’t necessarily make it a very good movie. Likable as Vaughn and Wilson are—and their chemistry and good-naturedness are in full flower—The Internship seems like a loose assemblage of a few ideas instead of a narrative. The first quarter of the film is slow and padded; even a welcome cameo by Will Ferrell ultimately flat-lines. The story then jumps over some fairly large plot holes to arrive at its triumphant conclusion.
There are also too many scenes of Vaughn and Wilson fast-talking and free-associating. The director, Shawn Levy, of Night at the Museum and Date Night, overuses this Judd Apatow crutch. It worked in Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and somewhat so in Knocked Up, but in a movie like The Internship, the device just reinforces the feeling that scenes were likely more fun for the actors to shoot than for us to watch.
The adult-goes-back-to-[fill in the blank] movie is at least as old as, well, 1986, when Rodney Dangerfield went Back to School. It’s territory Vaughn knows well, having starred in Old School. But The Internship fails to deliver on its promise of being a funny movie that fully embraces the way people use technology today. Hollywood tends to run 5 to 10 years behind mobile and social technologies, and even The Internship feels dated, despite an amusing moment in which Vaughn proudly invents a photo-sharing service, only to be told that Instagram already exists. One of the key challenges our heroes take on is manning Google’s helpline. Helpline? Anyone who’s ever had a problem with their Gmail knows there’s no helpline. If you’re going to make a movie about nerds, you’d better make sure you get the details right. Otherwise, they might beat you up.