What The Internship Misses About Unemployment

Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson's film is OK as dumb comedy, but its attempt to tap the zeitgeist fails for relying on unemployed heroes who have zero real obligations.
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20th Century Fox

At the beginning of The Internship, Billy McMahon and Nick Campbell find themselves in a situation many Americans have experienced these past few years: They lose their jobs after their company folds. For Billy (Vince Vaughn), the financial hit is so hard, his home goes into foreclosure. For Nick (Owen Wilson), the blow is more psychological than material. He's forced to sell mattresses for his sister's vile boyfriend, looking on in disgust as his boss sexually harasses an attractive client and ignores a dowdy one. Both men have to deal with the existential anguish of having spent their adult lives amassing a set of skills—in their case, selling wrist-watches—that have suddenly become useless. ("Nobody wears watches anymore," their former boss barks, pointing to his secretary, who relies on her iPhone to know what time it is.)

The solution to Billy and Nick's predicament turns out to be simple: Google. They become convinced that Google is the promised land (literally—Nick at one point refers to the company's Mountain View campus as the Garden of Eden), and so they pack up their things and move to Silicon Valley for a summer internship. What follows is a classic starting-over story (and an outrageously worshipful account of what it's like to work at Google). The two men are the oldest interns, and they have by far the least tech experience in their class. They don't know what a "bug" is, or that you're supposed to say "online" not "on the line," let alone how to code or how to navigate the politics of a high-tech workplace. But over the course of the summer, they develop new skills, gaining proficiency in HTML5 and C++, while also relying on their old-school talents: relating to people and making sales.

This storyline allows for a decently entertaining movie. The jokes are broad, the characters stereotypes, and the plot predictable, but Billy and Nick are easy to root for, and their chemistry with the other interns is real. As part of its apparent ambition to Say Something about today's economy, the film also offers an appealing, hopeful message for people who are out of work: All it takes to bounce back from getting laid off is boldness and a willingness to learn new things. But Billy and Nick have something else that many unemployed people don't have, something that allows them to head off to Mountain View entirely unfettered: a total lack of familial obligations.

Though in their 40s, Billy and Nick are both still unmarried, both still childless. Nick's bachelordom is explained early on by his sister, who complains that he's never had a relationship longer than three months. Billy, however, is in a long-term relationship at the beginning of the movie. Their breakup is one of The Internship's more affecting scenes: "You always find a way to screw things up and let people down," Megan sighs before storming out of the house, never to return. This scene again seems to resonate with popular theories on what's going on in today's culture more widely: As Kate Bolick lamented in her Atlantic cover story, "All the Single Ladies," men are unreliable, and it's better for women to be alone than to put up with a deadbeat boyfriend or husband.

Strangely, Billy barely reacts to the breakup—I'm not sure he even tells Nick it happens. Another movie would have made Billy's breakup a catalyst for him to prove himself as worthy and win Megan back. But the Google internship isn't Billy's way of getting the girl—it's his way of finding professional fulfillment and happiness. We never see or hear about Megan again.

It's relatively easy, of course, to switch cities and careers when you don't have anyone depending on you, to follow your dream of working for the world's largest search engine when you only have yourself to worry about. Money has an odd place in this movie. Characters express concern, abstractly, about having a good job, and, yes, Billy's home goes into foreclosure. But financial concerns don't seep into anyone's day-to-day life: Nick and Billy are able to pay for a hotel room near the Googleplex and high-rolling nights on the town in San Francisco without any explanation for where the cash comes from. And as with his breakup, Billy has next to no response to the foreclosure. He just moves on, without so much as a glance backward.

But for many people who are middle-aged, unemployed, and tied to dying industries, Nick and Billy's brand of plasticity isn't an option. They can't simply move on without looking back.

In many ways, Nick and Billy's willingness to reinvent themselves mid-career is admirable and worthy of emulation. One of the central arguments in Hanna Rosin's End of Men is that men are falling behind because they're professionally inflexible, unwilling to adapt. "A certain imaginary comic book duo kept presenting themselves to me: Plastic Woman and Cardboard Man," Rosin writes. "Plastic Woman has during the last century performed superhuman feats of flexibility...Cardboard Man... hardly changes at all. A century can go by and his lifestyle and ambitions remain largely the same." Nick and Billy buck this trend. They're not cardboard—they're plastic.

But for many people who are middle-aged, unemployed, and tied to dying industries, Nick and Billy's brand of plasticity isn't an option. They can't simply move on without looking back. Nearly 2 million of the nation's 5.8 million unemployed people in 2012 were married. Nearly 4 million had at least one child under the age of 18. Relocating, or working for months at drastically reduced pay, would be disruptive to their family's lives or lead to financial collapse. As much as The Internship looks like a movie with a message about today's economic reality, it's really providing a fantasy.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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