'Internship' film focuses on Google's good side

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SAN FRANCISCO — This scene isn’t in the movie, but it might have been fitting if “The Internship” had ended with stars Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson wearing ruby red shoes while clicking their heels and dreamily whispering, “There’s no place like Google; there’s no place like Google.”

The new comedy depicts Google as corporate America’s equivalent of the Emerald City from “The Wizard of Oz” — a colorful place where all the food is free, interesting people and gadgets loom around every corner and dreams can come true for those who think big enough, work hard enough and collaborate as a team.

It’s a nearly two-hour showcase for Google’s idealistic culture and for a product line that’s becoming deeply ingrained in people’s technology-dependent lives.

“The Internship,” which hits theaters Friday, will likely be a hit among Google-loving geeks and fans of feel-good flicks, especially those with an affinity for the riffing and mirthful chemistry between Vaughn and Wilson. The two are back together the first time since “Wedding Crashers.”

But the film may not create such warm and fuzzy feelings among Google critics who view the company as a self-interested bully that tramples over copyrights, intrudes into people’s privacy and stifles competition by abusing its power as Internet gateway.

All these concerns have been the focal points of high-profile regulatory investigations and lawsuits. Yet none of that is raised in the movie, which revolves around a couple of 40-something-old guys who become clueless interns at Google after losing their jobs selling wristwatches.

Everyone enamored with Google Inc. after seeing the movie should keep one thing in mind.

“This is not a documentary on Google where you come in and say, ‘This is exactly the way things are done there,’” Vaughn told real-life Google interns and technology reporters after a screening of “The Internship” in San Francisco.

The biggest misnomer about the movie revolves around Google’s summer internship program. As the movie portrays, Google does indeed select about 1,500 elite college students to participate, but the film conjures an imaginary curriculum.

In the film, the interns are separated into teams that compete in different disciplines to win the ultimate prize: full-time jobs at Google. At one point, the teams even engage in a game of Quidditch, the mythical sport that aspiring wizards in “Harry Potter” play to prove their prowess. None of this is actually part of Google’s real-life program.

Another scene suggests that Google puts a premium on training employees to work a customer help line — incredulous to anyone who has ever had a problem with a Google service and tried to reach a human being. Like many other Silicon Valley companies, Google directs people to look through its own online help articles or ask other users on message boards.

Amid the fictional hijinks, the movie casts a spotlight on Google’s ever-growing stable of products beyond Internet search, including YouTube, Gmail, Maps, Chrome Web browser and language translation. Google’s driverless cars get a cameo, but its wearable computing device, Google Glass, doesn’t appear. Device connoisseurs will notice characters using a phone made by Google-owned Motorola Mobility and devices with Google’s Nexus brand. Google didn’t contribute to the film’s nearly $60 million budget.

Some of Google’s rivals also get screen time. There are glimpses of Apple’s iPhone and iPad. Facebook’s photo-sharing service Instagram gets a shoutout. Location-sharing service Foursquare gets a passing mention, although not in a flattering way. A character describes Foursquare’s tracking ability as creepy, a description often slapped on Google services that monitor people’s whereabouts and preferences.

Although the movie does have some good-natured fun at the expense of the intelligent oddballs working at Google, it mostly focuses on the positive side of a company whose motto is “don’t be evil.”

Likening Google to an Oz-like oasis isn’t totally farfetched. The company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., does sometimes seem like a fantasyland — a cross between a surreal think tank and a college campus sheltered from the world around it.

To make Google seem even more mystical, the movie’s director, Shawn Levy, said he filmed the first 15 minutes or so of the movie in dull, bland colors. That way, the bright reds, yellows and greens at the company’s headquarters seem even more vibrant.

In some instances, it’s not really Google’s headquarters. Much of the movie was filmed at Georgia Tech and other parts of the Atlanta area.

Other Silicon Valley companies, most notably Facebook Inc. and Apple Inc., have created their own versions of Shangri-La, but Google’s allure stood out to Vaughn when he first began mulling his idea for “The Internship.”

“Google was the company that seemed the most interesting to me,” Vaughn said. “It was the right complement to this story.”

One of the movie’s producers, Sandra J. Smith, used to work in the tech industry and tapped into some of those connections to set up early meetings with Google. The company agreed to help with the movie, without any veto power over the script, after Levy promised Google officials the movie wouldn’t be cynical or mean-spirited.

“In retrospect, the amount of creative autonomy that they handed over to me was excellent, but also it could have really bitten them,” Levy said “It turned out in a way that we’re all happy.”

Just as Google didn’t pay for its products to appear in the movie, filmmakers didn’t pay for Google’s assistance or access to its headquarters.

Google’s cooperation stands in contrast to Facebook’s refusal to participate in “The Social Network,” a 2010 film that drew a darker portrait of its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook stressed the movie wasn’t anything like what really happened in the company.

“The Internship” doesn’t directly mention Google’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, though Brin makes two short appearances as himself. Brin is seen happily cruising around Google grounds when the characters played by Vaughn and Wilson arrive to start their internship. Brin also appears near the end of the movie to congratulate them.

The first appearance wasn’t even in the script, said Levy. The director said he simply saw a bearded guy riding around Google’s headquarters on an elliptical bicycle while wearing clothing better suited for yoga. When someone told Levy it was Brin, he asked Brin if he could film him.

Page, Google’s CEO and is less outgoing than Brin, doesn’t appear in the movie, though he wanted to see it made, hoping it will get more young people interested in pursuing careers in technology.

“The reason we got involved in that is because computer science has a marketing problem,” Page said at a conference for programmers in San Francisco. “We are the nerdy curmudgeons.”

Page believes the movie’s coolest character is a headphone-wearing, mostly silent engineer who ends up playing a key role in the climactic scene. “We are really excited about that,” he said.

Although he didn’t set out to make an ode to Google, Levy leaves little doubt about his admiration for the company.

“I realized what they’re about is really a certain quality of personhood that yes, has to do with intelligence, but has as much to do with ethical soundness and compassion and a sense of trying to do more good than harm in this world,” Levy told the AP.

While meeting with Google’s real-life interns, Levy also hailed a company ethos that has become known as “Googleyness.” When asked how he defines that term, Levy said: “It’s all the things that make you a complete person beyond being smart.”

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