“A Hologram for the King” is a seemingly slight movie about some very hefty subjects.
The United States’ image in the 21st century world. Its place in the global economy. The decline of its middle class. The feeling of impotence in many of its workers. The erosion of the American dream.
Big topics. And yet, very little happens in this brisk, 90-minute tragicomedy. It all plays out, in metaphor-filled microcosm, in the life of Alan Clay, a downwardly mobile American IT consultant trying to make a killer deal that will turn his career – and his life – around.
The film is based on a 2012 book by Dave Eggers that was lauded as a modern-day “Death of a Salesman” and “Waiting for Godot.” Much of what happens in the character-driven novel happens in Alan’s head. And on top of that, parts of it are rendered in dreamlike and surreal passages, literary devices that can be difficult to transfer from the page to the screen.
Making it work cinematically is a tall order. Thankfully, the job falls to Tom Hanks, who is so on the mark in this movie that you’ll be willing to overlook the movie’s occasional slips just to watch the at-times nuanced, at-times impossible-to-hide play of emotions on his face.
The film opens on Alan, talk-singing Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” while behind him the trappings of his middle-class life – his beautiful house, his beautiful car – explode into clouds of fuschia-colored smoke.
Cut to an anguished and disoriented Alan, waking up from this post-Recession nightmare while trapped in the middle seat of a jumbo jet surrounded by traditionally dressed Saudi men, who promptly begin praying to Mecca.
Nervous, jet-lagged and completely befuddled by the clash of cultures, Alan is ill-prepared for his last-ditch effort to sell Saudi King Abdullah Relyand Corp.’s technology for holographic teleconferencing.
If he can convince the monarch to have the system installed in the massive economic complex he is building in Jeddah, Clay’s commission will be big enough to get him out of hock and out of the bad graces of his daughter, whose college tuition he can no longer afford.
Perpetually oversleeping, Alan gets daily rides with a quirky livery driver, Yousef (Alexander Black), to the sand dune that is supposed to be King Abdullah Economic City.
His team of millennials, who have been relegated to a tent outfitted with folding tables and lawn chairs but no Wi-Fi, cool their heels, waiting for Alan and for a king who, they learn, has not once visited the economic enclave. The KAEC, it seems, is little more than a mirage, shimmering brightly in the desert sun, about real as Alan’s holograms.
Alan fumbles his way through a fraught friendship with Hanne (Sidse Babbett Knudsen), a Danish woman who inadvertently shows Alan that, in addition to his house, his wife and his savings, he has lost his confidence and libido, too.
When he develops a cupcake-sized lump on his upper back, Alan is treated by a beautiful Saudi doctor, Zarah Hakem (Sarita Choudhury), who gently dispels his health fears and points out that profound anxiety often has physical manifestations.
As the weeks go by, Alan’s daily bursts of swagger and drive evaporate. He spends more and more time mulling his personal and business failures, longing for connection and pondering his dwindling purpose in life.
“A Hologram for the King” falters when it tries too hard to convey the book’s ephemeral elements. Its dream sequences and flashbacks feel jarringly out-of place. Secondary characters, especially Hanne and Yousef, disappear from the story with no forewarning, When there actually is action in the film, it comes and goes in sudden, anticlimactic swirls. What succeeds in the book is far less successful here.
The film works best when it is focusing on the deep, flawed and beautiful humanity of Alan Clay, who is rendered impeccably by Hanks. It is a role made for him; it is hard to picture any other actor trying to play this troubled Everyman.
Black and Choudhury give fine performances, too, though they lack the dimension of their co-star.
But it is Hanks, whose portrayal of Alan is suffused with sublime humor, sadness and compassion, who will earn this spare movie its praise.
“A Hologram for the King”
3 stars (out of four)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Alexander Black, Sarita Choudhury
Director: Tom Tykwer
Running time: 90 minutes
Rating: R for some sexuality/nudity, language and brief drug use
The Lowdown: A desperate American IT salesman goes to Saudi Arabia to close what he hopes will be the deal of a lifetime.