The most interesting thing about A Hologram for the King is its title. It isn’t a bad movie, but about the best I can do is damn it with faint praise. It’s just okay. Based on the novel by Dave Eggers, Hologram tells the story of Alan Clay, a down-on-his-luck salesman who travels to Saudi Arabia to pitch a new I.T. and teleconferencing system to the King. Alan’s company spent millions developing this revolutionary new system, which incorporates hologram technology so that corporations and (in this case) governments can hold meetings with people across the globe in a way speaker phones and video monitors could never do. A trip that should take about a week turns into months, however, as Alan and his team are continually rebuffed by the royal officials: they are given a tent with no air conditioning, no food, and no Wi-Fi signal to prepare their presentation. They don’t even know when the King will be in town, much less when he will view their presentation. Along the way, we learn about Alan’s problems, and watch as he makes connections with an eccentric cab driver, a Saudi doctor, and the Danish ambassador to the Middle Eastern country.
A Hologram for the King is so episodic that it just barely hangs together as a narrative. Day after day Alan oversleeps and misses the shuttle from the hotel to the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade, where his team is trying to prepare for their presentation. Each time he sleeps through his alarm, Alan calls Yousef, a man the hotel concierge recommends. Yousef isn’t so much a cab driver as he is a guy with a somewhat reliable car who is willing to drive Alan the several hour commute. This is a fish-out-of-water story, and Yousef lies squarely in the territory of the character whose eccentricity belies his ability to lead our hero through this strange new land.
Yousef loves American classic rock like Journey and Chicago. He always checks his engine for a bomb before he starts his car, because a very rich and powerful man thinks Yousef is sleeping with his wife. Among the disjointed episodes Alan experiences with Yousef is an accidental trip to the holy city of Mecca because of a missed exit, and a mystic sequence where Yousef and his friends watch over a heard of sheep who have fallen prey to a wolf the previous few nights.
Taken by themselves, each of these sequences are entertaining enough, but together they don’t add up to a satisfying whole. The part of the film that comes closest to offering that kind of satisfaction is the nascent romance that blooms between Alan and Zahra, a Saudi doctor. Early in the film, Alan discovers a large protuberance sticking out of his back. He goes to the hospital after unsuccessfully trying to excise the cyst himself during a drunken stupor, and there he meets Zahra. She recommends a biopsy, and the two make a connection that becomes the central driving force of the film, if it can be said that Hologram has one.
Several rather clumsy flashbacks inform the audience that Alan went through a messy divorce, and that he isn’t really sure if he’s ready to become romantically involved with someone new yet. That sentiment is telegraphed to us during the episodes when Alan encounters Hanne, the Danish Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Hanne invites Alan to a party at the Danish embassy, reminiscent of a rave from the late 1990s. Hanne tries to seduce Alan in the coat room of the embassy, but he rebuffs her advances in a scene that, like the other fragmented sequences in the movie, just sort of sputters out. That scene, and Alan’s other encounters with Hanne, did succeed in making me wonder if an unlikely love connection could thrive between the middle-aged white American, and Zahra, the Arabic doctor who lives in a very different culture.
The most disappointing thing about Hologram is the uninspired direction by Tom Tykwer. He’s known for standout work in Run, Lola, Run and Cloud Atlas, but only hints at his acumen for daring pictorial style in two or three scenes in Hologram. The opening is a wild and infectiously fun dream sequence where Alan sings the Talking Heads classic Once in a Lifetime as he walks through a world populated by colorful, computer-generated imagery. The sequences where Alan suffers a panic attack, and when he drunkenly cuts open the lump on his back reminded me of Tykwer’s inventiveness. The rest of the movie, though, could have been directed by anyone.
The performances by Tom Hanks as Alan and Sarita Choudhury as Zahra are easily the strongest elements of the movie, and their interactions – especially during the final act – give the picture a dramatic weight that it wouldn’t otherwise have. Hanks is perfect as the endlessly likeable everyman. Choudhury plays Zahra – a woman also going through a messy divorce – with tender vulnerability. These strengths make A Hologram for the King feel like a missed opportunity.
Why it got 2.5 stars:
- Try as he might, Tom Hanks can't carry a movie (or at least not this movie) completely on his back. His star power goes a long way, just not long enough to make A Hologram for the King an interesting exercise.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- While doing some reading about the source material, I found out a major aspect of the novel is Alan's money troubles as a result of the financial crash of 2008 and '09. The book (and movie) is set in 2010, and the general malaise of the Great Recession takes center stage as a major theme. That dimension is almost completely lacking in the film. We see in flashback that Alan has lost his house, and he frets about being able to pay for his daughter's college education, but it comes across as background noise. It would have made for a much more interesting story if Tykwer (who wrote as well as directed) had been able to incorporate that element more fully.