There are books that were never meant to be adapted to the screen, and yet, Hollywood constantly turns to them for ideas again and again. I’ve never read David Eggers’ novel A Hologram for the King, but obviously someone must have liked it enough to make it into a movie, and most likely filmmaker Thomas Tykwer and Tom Hanks were amongst them. Perhaps the two even discussed it while previously working together on 2012’s Cloud Atlas (also based on a popular novel).
By chance, this is the third “fish out of water” comedy in the past few months that places an American in the Middle East, and though it takes a different approach to this premise than Rock the Kasbah and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot before it, it nonetheless suffers from some of the exact same issues.
In this case, it’s Hanks’ Alan Clay, an IT expert at a company trying to win the bid for a contract to set up communications for a new mini-city being built in Saudi Arabia. The idea is that Alan is to spearhead a presentation to the king about his company’s hologram-based telecommunications system, but before you get too excited, this isn’t going to be any sort of science fiction movie.
Opening with a comical music video of Hanks performing Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” sets an amusing tone that’s never quite lived up to in the rest of the movie, and in fact, it’s just a dream that he’s having on his flight to Saudi Arabia. On arriving, he deals with the usual issues of jetlag, fatigue, and miscommunication while waiting patiently for the king’s liaison to improve the less-than-ideal situation in which Alan and his small team have found themselves. He also soon finds a worrying bump on his back that sends him to see a local doctor (Sarita Choudhury) who he immediately connects with, despite it being against the strict Muslim laws of the area.
During the stay, Alan’s driven around by a wisecracking local named Yousuf, played by Alexander Black, delivering the same issue of whitewashing Arab roles as with Christopher Abbott in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Similar to Abbott in that film, Black ends up being the best part of Hologram, because he gives the film the much-needed comic relief to counterbalance Hanks’ dry performance.
Back home, Alan has an ex-wife and a grown daughter who has dropped out of college to work as a waitress, but these matters are so inconsequential and barely resolved, they could have easily been cut from the adaptation.
That plot description may sound complicated, but that’s because, like Eggers’ work, Tykwer’s adaptation tries to create a well-rounded picture of Alan and his situation. The movie’s biggest problem is Hanks himself, who never is quite able to sell that he’s as an everyman the audience can relate to, which is a far cry from where he was 20 years ago when making Forest Gump and other films for which he rightfully received awards accolades.
For the most part, the film mainly follows Clay getting more and more impatient with a situation he can’t control while he waits to make his presentation and gets himself into trouble, but none of that’s particularly funny or entertaining as some might expect.
The movie only starts to get interesting toward the last act when Alan begins to have a relationship with that Arab doctor, Zahra, giving him a reason to remain in Saudi Arabia. Choudhury, an amazing talent, is the one actor who able to draw out some of those dramatic talents we’ve seen from Hanks in the past. Up until that point, the film is lacking any of the heart or soul necessary to make it work as a dramedy—a genre that’s obviously not Tykwer’s forte—and the movie’s over just as things start getting better.
Despite Hanks and Tykwer’s involvement, Hologram seems like a lesser movie for both of them and not like something that might connect with mainstream audiences. Being released so soon after the far superior Whisky Tango Foxtrot isn’t going to help much either.
A Hologram for the King opens in select cities on Friday, April 22.