I didn’t know “A Hologram for the King” was based on a book until the end credits rolled. Looking back on my viewing experience, that explains a lot. The film adaptation of the Dave Eggers book feels like a visual interpretation of a novel, a movie that ultimately is too jam-packed with small vignettes because director Tom Tykwer didn’t want to leave out any “important” parts of the book. Instead of a clear and focused film, we get way too many short glimpses of a complex story.
Down-on-his-luck American businessman Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) has been sent to Saudi Arabia to pitch a high tech holographic messaging system to King Abdullah. The nearly broke, divorced and slightly pathetic Alan was chosen for this gig because of a brief restroom encounter with the young King years before.
A stranger in a strange land, Alan is confused by some of the local customs, is having a hard time adjusting to the time change, can’t seem to navigate the bureaucratic red tape, and is worried about the giant cyst that’s growing on his back. He soon forms an unlikely friendship with cheery local driver Yousef (the quite enjoyable Alexander Black who steals every scene he’s in), fights off advances and illegal booze from a very friendly Danish businesswoman (Sidse Babett Knudsen), and initiates a forbidden romance with striking Saudi surgeon Zahra (Sarita Choudhury).
There’s a good mix of lighthearted humor and observant social commentary. Two of the best scenes involve Alan and Zahra snorkeling (she follows him into the sea topless and wearing men’s swim trunks so the neighbors will assume there are just two guys swimming) and a car ride where Alan is smuggled into Mecca, a place open to Muslims only. “Could you please not look at the temple,” Yousef requests with all seriousness. Really good stuff.
It’s the dependable, affable Tom Hanks who carries the film. He’s right at home and is perfectly cast as an existential everyman. You like him, you feel for him, and you delight when things finally start to turn his way.
This uneven film reminds me of a mash-up of “Up In the Air,” “Lost In Translation” and “Waiting for Godot.” It’s filled with the all too familiar ‘fish out of water’ culture clash clichés but the story is authentic, sweet and enjoyable enough. Frequent travelers will find plenty to appreciate despite the slow pacing.
In “A Hologram for the King,” Alan (Tom Hanks) is a recently-divorced, mid-level corporate executive experiencing a mid-life crisis. He has recently changed jobs, his ex-wife hates him, and he can’t afford to put his daughter through college. He finds himself in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where he is set to pitch the King on a holographic communications system that was developed by the company he works for. As he waits for the King to make his presentation, he makes friends with some locals and experiences life in the Kingdom.
I enjoy Hanks in just about anything he does, and this movie is no exception. He has a wonderful everyman quality about him that makes him instantly relatable and sympathetic. In this film, he’s also surrounded by other capable actors, primarily Alexander Black (who plays Yousef) as Alan’s driver and new friend, and Sarita Choudhury (who plays Zahra), Alan’s doctor who becomes more than that.
“A Hologram for the King” is at its best when it’s acting as a travelogue. We travel through a big city and small villages; we see Mecca, the desert, and beautiful beaches. We eat the food and breathe in the local culture. We experience the double-standard that is the supposedly strict prohibition on drinking alcohol. In the movie we get to see glimpses of a world that is at the same time very different, and not-so-different, from ours; a world where public executions, strict customs, gender and class divisions, and orthodoxy are de riguer. But even while we experience through the film a culture that is very foreign to ours, we are reminded of how similar we all are, what makes us human.
But while it does work as a video journey through Saudi Arabia, it doesn’t work that well as a story. There isn’t much plot, and not much happens. It’s a bit narratively disjointed in that we experience what we expect and think will be the conclusion not at the end of the film but about three-fourths of the way through. I liked the story well enough, but it wasn’t particularly compelling. If it didn’t feature Hanks, it’s likely that the movie wouldn’t have received much of a release and would quickly be forgotten.
If you’re in the mood for a very adult film that also teaches you a little bit about another culture, then “A Hologram for the King” is the movie for you. Just don’t expect to be highly entertained by it.