The Googleplex Goes Hollywood with “The Internship”

During the months I spent researching In the Plex, I often encountered the term “Googliness.” It was kind of a puzzle from Lewis Carrol. You can’t understand the company unless you grasp the meaning of this term, but of course the term means nothing unless you have a sense of Google’s essence. "Googley" is also as much an aspirational value as a descriptor. When Googlers use the term, they are referring to their optimism, constructive ambition, brains, technical prowess, and quirkiness. No one at the company uses the term in matters of risking privacy, avoiding taxes, or pulling the plug on popular products. Movies like "The Internship," the studiously irreverent genre of buddy comedy that typically stars people like Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, usually send audiences off into the night with a tacked-on inspirational message. For almost 90 minutes, these movies feature slouches who wisecrack and misbehave. But as the closing credits approach, these losers change their lives by embracing an inspirational ideal, be it loyalty, integrity, or better hygiene. In the case of the “The Internship,” starring (of course) Vaughn and Wilson, the ideal is Googliness. In fact, Google is all over this movie, which was shot with the complete cooperation with the company. (Google might not have had script approval, but considerable influence—for instance, the filmmakers cut a proposed scene involving a crash of the self-driving car.) I watched the movie in a packed sneak preview on Saturday night at a movie complex only steps away from the actual Googleplex. My companions were Googlers, as were many others in the audience. As one might expect, it was warmly received, even though it’s not nearly as funny as “Wedding Crashers.” The movie hinges on a few suspensions of disbelief. First you must swallow the premise of two failed middle-aged salesmen getting into Google’s vaunted internship program. While diversity in gender, race and sexual orientation is indeed valued at Google, the one aspect of diversity that the company has always neglected is class status. Attendees of lower-tier colleges (let alone the University of Phoenix, the online education mill that our heroes enroll in to claim student status) face an almost impossible hiring hurdle. Also forgivable is the conceit that Google’s summer internship is a tournament-style team competition for jobs—the director Shawn Levy refers to this departure from reality as the “motor” that drives the plot. The real motor of the plot, though, is a classic ducks-out-of-water situation. Two 40-something Willie Lomans lose their sales jobs—their boss calls them “dinosaurs.” So they join up with the firm that symbolizes the future. Google is familiar as a service to the entire movie-watching public. But (except for those who read In the Plex!) the actual company itself is a vague ideal—some sort of pampered corporate retreat where brainy people are indulged by goodies as they code up our online world. The movie takes all the well-known pieces of this myth (free food!) and expands them to make Google look like some sort of geek Brigadoon, a truly magic kingdom. Now, I have to admit that there is a bit truth to this. A couple of summers ago, my sister and my father (who is over 90) visited California and I got some Google friends to host us for lunch on the campus. They were bowled over—on a gorgeous July day employees in shorts and sandals were eating alfresco, playing beach volleyball, and languorously tapping on keyboards while taking some sun. But the filmmakers take this idyllic vision over the top. When our protragonists hit campus—some of it filmed at the real Googleplex-- the dreary world of rust-belt dealmaking is replaced by a planet of fun. The colors are deep and lush, like Pandora in “Avatar.” Self-driving cars buzz around. Sergey himself pedals by on an elliptical bike. It’s like the moment in "The Wizard of Oz" when everything turns Technicolor. (Indeed, Shawn Levy has described his intent to make the Googleplex look like The Emerald City.) The subliminal message is that Google is some sort of otherworldy workplace paradise, and the people working there are adepts driving to enrich the pitiful existence of those on the outside. You can just imagine how thousands of kids watching this might now rejigger their career ambitions to make Google their destination. Google products are embedded throughout the movie, and people throw around geek terms like HTML 5 with reasonable accuracy. (There's even a C++ joke.) Unfortunately, most of the plotting and characterization is superficial and obvious. Real Googlers are funnier and quirkier in much more interesting and bizarre ways than the movie depicts, and some deeper research and smarter screenwriting might have made this a much better movie. The moviemakers also could have taken a clue from Google in enforcing efficiency. Some scenes, like the one in the rather tame strip club, seem to go on forever. This would not have happened if Larry Page had been in the editing room counting off seconds, as he has been known to do during product demos. But from Google’s point of view, the movie could not possibly be better. The company is depicted in all cases as a force for progress and righteousness. There’s even a scene implying that Google considers phone help lines as a high-priority means of serving customers, a premise funnier than anything in the movie. Even more important to a company that’s constantly under the threat of regulation and litigation, “The Internship” celebrates Google’s self-defined values—that aforementioned Googliness. Though the words “Don’t Be Evil” are never mentioned in the movie, that ethic, as well as the values of cooperation and putting the user first, are clearly implied in the movie’s definition of that term. The winning group of interns wins not just by data-crunching their score, but by their Googliness. And the cardboard villain in the story—an imperious snob who’s out for himself—is told he will never work for Google. Because he isn’t Googley. The takeaway is that Google is a preserve for goodness, and our trust in them is earned. They’re Googley! No one has ever used the term “Googliness” to describe a genius for movie product placement. But after “The Internship,” maybe people should.