You could call A Hologram for the King a coming-of-age story for a man or a midlife crisis tale. It’s Tom Hanks in less-than-populist filmmaking mode. The film features an unconventional narrative based on a culture clash.
In recession-ravaged 2010, American businessman Alan Clay (Hanks), broke, depressed and freshly divorced, arrives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to close what he hopes will be the deal of a lifetime. His mission: sell a state-of-the-art holographic teleconferencing system to the Saudi government. Adrift and alone in an unfamiliar land, Clay befriends taxi driver Yousef (Alexander Black), who transports him in a clapped out car through the desert to the “King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade”. That happens to be a surreal ghost town of vacant skyscrapers and half-completed construction projects.
Baffled by the bureaucratic reception he gets at the so-called Welcome Centre, Alan struggles to figure out why his small IT support team is being forced to spend its days in a sweltering tent as it preps for a big presentation. Worse, because of the Saudi way of doing business, he’s unclear if the king will ever show up for the long-scheduled meeting. Back in Jeddah, the stressed-out salesman winds up in the hospital, where he is treated by a beautiful and empathetic Muslim doctor Zahra Hakem (Sarita Shoudhury). As Clay gets to know his new Saudi friends better, cultural barriers break down and he begins to contemplate the possibility of a fresh start.
Based on Dave Eggers’ novel of the same name, A Hologram for the King is written and directed by German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (Cloud Atlas). Adapting Eggers’ story for the big screen, Tykwer took advantage of Hanks’ inherent likeability by fleshing out the comedic elements embedded in Alan Clay’s grim predicament. “The novel has a strange sense of humour, but it was standing next to a lot of profoundly melancholic and tragic moments,” Tykwer says.
Clay arrives in Saudi Arabia without any prior knowledge of the place, other than his own cartoonish, stereotypical concept, according to Hanks. He goes further. “At the start of the movie, Alan’s adrift, he’s divorced, his job at the Reliant Corporation is tenuous and he’s worried about maintaining a connection with his own daughter.” Alan’s father, portrayed by Tom Skerrit, only compounds his distress by scolding his son on the phone about a career low point. That was when he steered the once-mighty Schwinn Bicycle Company into bankruptcy after outsourcing hundreds of manufacturing jobs to China. “It’s like Alan’s alone on an iceberg, or in the desert, as the case may be,” Hanks says. “Poor Alan’s in a tough, sad spot, but you’re able to laugh because we see this juxtaposition: he’s trying to make sense of this country at the same time he can’t even make sense of his own life.” In addition to emphasising the book’s humor, Tykwer bolstered the romantic elements as he translated Eggers’ story from page to screen.
A Hologram for the King is the kind of movie that takes some time to appreciate and get involved in. More art house than mainstream in nature, it is a slow-burn picture that features a number of flashback scenes so we – the audience – obtain snippets of Clay’s life and what led him to this point. It is a fish-out-of-water tale in which frustration and happenstance lead to an epiphany, in this case to Clay regaining equilibrium and getting back on track, something that has been sorely lacking for some time.
The three key characters – Clay, the driver and the doctor – and all very different, but agreeable. Not surprisingly, it is Clay who drives the action and Hanks is his usual polished and proficient self. The cultural differences are, obviously, played up for comedic and dramatic effect. I became more and more engaged as the story played out, so much so that I genuinely cared about the outcome.
So, A Hologram for the King works if you give it a chance to. Still, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Rated M, it scores a 7 out of 10.
Director: Tom Tykwer
Cast: Tom Hanks, Alexander Black, Sarita Choudhury
Release Date: 25 August 2016 (limited)
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television