It’s pretty much a given that when you hear the hallucinatory synthesized riff that opens “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads you’re in store for a movie about a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis. A Hologram for the King, the new film from writer-director Tom Tykwer based on the novel by Dave Eggers, opens with that very song. But when Tom Hanks begins singing altered lyrics in an inventive little dream sequence, Tykwer quickly establishes that this will be a slightly different interpretation of the mid-life crisis story.
Hanks stars as Alan Clay, an American businessman who is traveling to Saudi Arabia for an important business presentation to the king of the religious monarchy. He’s divorced and his daughter is of college age, though recent financial hardships have her taking a year off from her studies. But the Kingdom of Saud isn’t exactly the right place for Alan to get out of the rut he’s in. At first, he has trouble getting to the secluded spot where the Saudis plan on building a massive city, a technological and architectural marvel that is barely moved past its inception. Oversleeping due to jet lag, Alan is forced to take a private car out there, and hires Yousef (Alexander Black), a somewhat eccentric local who fears that his car will be bombed by a man who think he’s sleeping with his wife.
Day after day, Yousef drops Alan off at the proposed site where his team awaits in a tent with barely working wi-fi and lingering questions about food and restrooms. Set meeting times aren’t honored by the Saudi hosts, Alan is more or less stuck in a Waiting for Godot-like situation – any day now the King and his men will be there for the presentation, just not today. As he waits and waits for a meeting that he’s assured is happening, Alan also deals with an ugly growth on his back, a growth that he sees as the extension of his personal and professional malaise. Alan gets the growth looked at by Dr. Zahra (Sarita Choudhury), whom Alan quickly becomes fascinated with. But Alan has to contend with the customs of a culture that he’s an outsider to, and looming will they, won’t they of his make or break presentation adds nothing but complications to an already confounding mid-life crisis.
It would seem that A Hologram for the King is just a generic blending of a mid-life crisis story with a stranger in a strange land story, but for its first two-thirds the film gleeful avoids convention. Flashbacks and dreams give us insight into Alan Clay’s fractured mentality, personal and professional regrets intersecting with a stagnant present. However, as the film nears its conclusion it settles into a fairly rote conclusion, one that doesn’t fulfill the funny and insightful promise of a majority of the film.
One thing that A Hologram for the King does really well is portraying an oppressive government without placing undue blame on the citizens forced to live under its reign. Never does Tykwer shy away from presenting the harsher aspects of the Saudi culture, public executions and the subjugation of women, but he covers these issues with a fairly humorous angle, not exactly something that’s easy to pull off when dealing with a religious monarchy. A Hologram for the King also delves into issues of globalization, with Alan having to deal with the guilt of sacrificing American jobs for the bottom line at his last job. Perhaps, just perhaps, the demon of globalization that he unleashed may come back to bite him.
As should be expected, Tom Hanks uses all of his natural affability to Alan Clay, making the character likable and flawed with a real sense of depth. Once again, Hanks plays a character that is to embody America – a good guy that has made bad decisions of varying degrees, sometimes cozying up to despicable forces for personal gain. Yet through it all, you just can’t root against Hanks. Co-star Alexander Black gives a breakout performance as Yousef, almost borrowing that aforementioned affability from Hanks. Black carries a bulk of the film’s comedic weight, delivering most of the film’s hilarious lines. Rounding out the strong cast is Sarita Choudhury, who blends professional competence with a wounded personal life, an interesting counterpart to Hanks’ Alan Clay.
A Hologram for the King comes so close to greatness only to have it slip through its fingers at the conclusion. It’s a highly entertaining movie that only becomes frustrating towards the end. Tykwer’s film is briskly edited and often quite inventive, only to nestle into the confines of conventionality when it needed to break away the most. A Hologram for the King greatly benefits from having a presence like Tom Hanks as a businessman stuck in a professional purgatory, and has some interesting moments that tackle globalization, the mid-life crisis, and family after divorce. By the end of A Hologram for the King, you feel a lot like Alan Clay – sitting around waiting for a greatness that’s never going to arrive. Settling for adequacy doesn’t make it a bad deal.
- A Hologram for the King
Inventive in its presentation and thoughtful in its content, A Hologram for the King flirts with greatness before nestling into the confines of conventionality at its conclusion.