By Matt Singer | Criticwire June 7, 2013 at 12:56PM
"The Internship" might be a thinly veiled 2 hour commercial for Google, but it does contain at least one moment of pure, unvarnished truth. It comes near the climax of the film, after Nick and Billy, two friends and former watch salesmen, have botched their highly coveted internships at The Goog. Pouring his heart out to his buddy after a particularly bad screw-up, Billy says "I'm a salesman, Nick. I sell things." We're watching Billy, but we're really hearing the guy who plays him: Vince Vaughn.
Salesmanship is in Vaughn's blood. In an interview with Interview Magazine, Vaughn's "Swingers" co-star Jon Favreau asked his buddy why he wanted to star in "The Prime Gig," a 2000 film in which Vaughn played a telemarketer. His response:
"My dad was a salesman and my mom did a lot of sales too -- real estate and stocks and stuff -- so it's a world I grew up in and one I was always fascinated by."
According to People Magazine, it goes deeper than that. Before he became a working actor, Vaughn's first job was as a telemarketer.
Even after Vaughn got out of the family business and into acting, he kept in touch with his roots -- and slowly brought more of the family business into his acting. "The Internship" may look like some kind of new low point for movies and product placement -- and it probably is -- but a careful consideration of Vaughn's movies reveals that in the last decade he's become more interested in the art of the pitch onscreen, playing one salesman after another and including increasingly unsubtle product placement and endorsements in his scripts. As crass and mercenary as "The Internship" might be, Vaughn fully admits how fascinated he is by the world of sales. Which means "The Internship" may be Vaughn's most personal cinematic expression to date. Like he says in the movie, he's a salesman. He sells thing.
Vaughn first rose to stardom in the '90s indie classic "Swingers," where his performance as the self-proclaimed ladies man Trent became instantly iconic. After "Swingers," Vaughn tried his hand at lots of different roles and genres: he made action movies ("The Lost World: Jurassic Park"), serial killer comedies ("Clay Pigeons"), serial killer remakes ("Psycho"), serial killer thrillers ("The Cell"). In 2003, though, Vaughn returned to comedy and hit it big, as "Beanie" Campbell in the back to college comedy "Old School."
In the film, Luke Wilson's Mitch breaks up with his girlfriend and moves into a house near Harrison University. His best friend Beanie quickly seizes on Mitch's new place and transforms it into an unofficial frat house. By night, he throws lavish parties and hazes the new members of their fraternity; by day Beanie runs a successful chain of electronics stores called Speaker City.
While most of "Old School" involves Mitch and Beanie and their burgeoning frat, there's rarely a scene that goes by that doesn't include a reference to Speaker City. Beanie wears a series of Speaker City polo shirts and baseball hats; he pitches other characters on speaker equipment; he hands out business cards; and he adorns Mitch's house with banners when he sponsors a rager featuring a performance from Snoop Dogg. Beanie is an entrepreneur but he makes it clear he's made his fortune on the strength of his salesmanship, not his understanding of electronics equipment -- and he puts those skills to good use throughout the film. He's the one who essentially "sells" the pledges on the idea of a frat that isn't affiliated with the university. Next, he sells Mitch on the idea too. He's a salesman. He sells things.
Though Speaker City was a fictional store invented for the purposes of the movie, "Old School" was otherwise a safe place for established brands and product placement. At various points in the movie we see prominent logos for Wild Cherry Pepsi (in Will Ferrell's hand as "Frank the Tank" tries his first beer bong), Popeye's Chicken (an empty box sits on Mitch's TV the morning after the Snoop Dogg party), and Mountain Dew (a soda machine lingers in the background during the scene between the Dean and the class president).
After the massive success of "Old School," Vaughn's roles as serial killers, FBI agents, and dinosaur hunters started to become less frequent, and he repeatedly returned to variations on Beanie, the fast-talking, wise-cracking suburban dad who could sell ham to a rabbi. Meanwhile, the product placement, brand integration, and commercials in his movies got more and more brazen.
In 2007's "Fred Claus," for example, Vaughn plays the disgruntled older brother of Santa Claus. In the scene below, he gets into an argument with several Salvation Army Santa Clauses. A chase begins, which leads, for no reason whatsoever, into a mall Toys R Us. There's a logo for Toys R Us somewhere in the background of almost every single shot.
In 2009's "Four Christmases" Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon play a couple forced to visit all four of their divorced parents on Christmas. Exchanging gifts with his nephews, Vaughn presents the kids with an Xbox. It all feels natural and organic until Vaughn suddenly starts rattling off the system's tech specs. Did you know Xbox has a triple-core processor? Well it does.
Selling video games in movies is a particular passion of Vaughn's. In "Couples Retreat" from 2009 (which Vaughn co-wrote and co-produced), he plays a Guitar Hero salesman on a holiday with his wife (Malin Akerman) and three other couples. Late in the film, the men are out looking for their missing spouses when they accidentally stumble into the cabin of the resort's humorless, unsympathetic manager (Peter Serafinowicz). Naturally, he turns out to be a Guitar Hero obsessive, which opens the door for a sequence where Vaughn challenges him to a rock-off. That opens the door for what's basically a Guitar Hero commercial.
(NOTE: There's actually a Guitar Hero guitar lying in the background of a scene in "The Internship," which is kind of weird since there hasn't been a new Guitar Hero game in 3 years. And there's also a reference to Guitar Hero in the dialogue of 2012's "Lay the Favorite" -- Rebecca Hall's character tells Vaughn's that playing Guitar Hero with delivery guys while taking bets on the phone is reckless and could get him in trouble. In other words: Vince Vaughn still really likes Guitar Hero.)
But that's not all. "Couples Retreat" also includes prominent product placement for Froot Loops (Vaughn says he needs a bowl in the morning to get the day started) and Budweiser (featured in big neon signs in any bar scene, and in the hands of the cast on numerous occasions. There's also a really weird sequence where Vaughn, trying to talk some sense into his buddy Joey (Favreau), paints a picture of a cautionary tale about a divorced man eating alone at Applebee's. And then he keeps saying the word Applebee's.
That's five Applebee's in 30 seconds. Guys, Applebee's, amirite?
How do you top that? By setting entire movies in corporate locations so that brands, products, and trademarks are never more than a camera pan away. In 2011's "The Dilemma," Vaughn once again played a salesman, this time partnered with Kevin James' automobile engineer. They pitch Dodge on a new kind of electric car with a more robust motor (in a scene that called electric cars "gay" and drew substantial controversy). After some not particularly funny personal issues are sorted out, the pair return to Dodge headquarters for a demonstration of their new electric car -- complete with James revving the purring engine and plenty of cutaways to the dashboard tachometer, which conveniently has a big "DODGE" logo right next to it.
That's nothing compared to last year's "The Watch," which was set almost entirely at a Costco that becomes ground zero for an alien invasion of earth. Ben Stiller's character works at Costco, Vaughn's shops at Costco (he's introduced marveling at the HDTVs), the neighborhood watch holds occasional meetings at Costco, and they all fight aliens at Costco during the film's conclusion.
The setting allows "The Watch" (which was produced by Shawn Levy, the director of Google's "The Internship") to pimp not only Costco, but other brands as well. Note the way this red band trailer for the film is structured around jokes involving products like Nestle Drumsticks and Trojan Magnum condoms.
That brings us back to "The Internship" (additional non-Google product placement: "Star Wars," the University of Phoenix, Oracle, and Pappy Van Winkle bourbon), which merges both Vaughn's penchant for playing salesmen and his penchant for selling things onscreen. You may not buy "The Internship"'s pitch about Google's near-utopian workplace of free snacks, bean bag chairs, and decommissioned spaceships, but there's no question that Vaughn does (he co-wrote and co-produced this film as well).
Critics may not respond to "The Internship" (current Rotten Tomatoes rating: 33%) but if audiences come this weekend, and they enjoy the film's message that the world is just a little bit better when you use Google (and Google Play, and Google Drive, and Google Helpline...) that's all that really matters. A salesman doesn't care about his critics; he cares about his customers.
Still, "The Watch" was a bit of a flop last year; if "The Internship" bombs as well, might Vaughn rethink his mercantile approach? It's possible, but not likely. His next movie is entitled "Delivery Man." The first trailer is just one minute long, and barely has time for anything beyond establishing the film's premise -- but Vaughn still manages to sneak in a plug for Triumph Motorcycles.
In conclusion: Applebee's.