The opening dream sequence of A Hologram For The King finds status symbols of the American dream evaporating into puffs of purple smoke as Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) paraphrases the opening of Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime – “You may find yourself looking for your large automobile… without a beautiful house, without a beautiful wife and you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”- to the fourth wall and then the heavens above.
This is representative of writer-director Tom Tykwer’s slightly sunnier take on Dave Eggers’ acclaimed novel, in which struggling salesman Alan travels to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to pitch a virtual reality conferencing system to the king. Unfortunately, Alan is on thin ice with his company, who have only sent him because he has a tenuous in with the royal family, and the delays to his presentation are manifold.
He repeatedly over-sleeps, forcing him to recruit a driver and guide named Yousef (Alexander Black) to take him to the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade, which is still in the progress of being built, to meet with the monarch, who hasn’t been there in over 18 months. With pressure mounting from his company and his college-bound daughter back home, Alan begins to fixate upon an egg-sized lump on his back that seems as if it is the cause of all of his problems.
Next to Hanks and Tykwer’s previous collaboration, Cloud Atlas, this one looks like the height of simplicity, but believe it or not, there are other grounds for comparison between the two films. While Tykwer and the Wachowskis teamed up to bring David Mitchell’s sprawling six-pronged novel to the screen in hugely underrated style, A Hologram For The King has a similarly literary feel to the way in which it’s converted for a visual medium.
Just as Cloud Atlas ‘rhymed’ characters and situations across half a dozen different settings and time periods, the backstory isn’t spoon-fed here, working more like bad memories really do, as Alan reluctantly recalls brief snatches of previous episodes in his career, such as his time as a board member for the doomed Schwinn Bicycle Company. The significance of these brief bits inform his character rather than feeling like exposition dumps.
Likewise, Tykwer has a good eye for juxtaposition, even if the outside perspective of the film isn’t really in the service of anything pointed or satirical. Ranging from two women in burqas passing a lingerie store’s window display to the arch silliness of a libidinous party in the Danish embassy, it has a little in common with last week’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, but of the two ‘white people on tour’ comedies in cinemas right now, it’s this film which is markedly less self-aware, right down to casting Black as a Saudi Arabian.
Other reviews have remarked on the miscasting of Hanks in the lead, but we don’t know that we can entirely agree there. Certainly, he’s more of a bumbling Mr Bean type than a man in the throes of self-destructive crisis, but as we’ve said, Tykwer’s take is sunnier than the one on the page. Hanks is always enjoyable to watch and on this adaptation’s own terms, he ensures that you root for Alan just by being there.
Even if you wouldn’t peg him for the type to have a mid-life crisis, the film gets some good mileage out of him looking for a change of scene to try and course-correct himself, even though he brings his problems with him. It’s not just a fish out of water movie – he’s genuinely hapless wherever he goes, whether making Lawrence Of Arabia references that go over the heads of his young American tech team or freaking out the locals by joking about freelancing for the CIA.
But it remains firmly within its comfort zone and for all of Alan’s time in limbo waiting for the king to arrive, the film feels remarkably perfunctory – it doesn’t outstay its welcome, but neither does it ever feel like it really gets going. The exception is a romantic sub-plot with Alan’s female doctor, (Sarita Choudhury), who becomes a confidante in the face of his mounting health problems and at least serves as a more interesting representative of Saudi culture than anyone else in the film.
A Hologram For The King is amiable fare but as highlighted in its emphatic opening, Tykwer brings a visual panache that elevates the film just above most Hollywood travelogues of its kind. Any thematic baggage is strictly carry-on only and it feels destined to be a future Pointless answer from Hanks’ filmography, but it’s sometimes quite funny and certainly not without its charms.
A Hologram For The King is in UK cinemas now.
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