Tom Hanks has made a career out of playing, with great aplomb, nice guys stuck in weird, confusing, or untenable situations. The actor once again uses that uncanny ability to diverting effect in Tom Tykwer’s meandering yet oddly entertaining A Hologram for the King.
Hanks is Alan Clay, an American IT salesman sent to Saudi Arabia to pitch his company’s technology for a city complex being built in the middle of the desert by the King of Saudi Arabia. He arrives, jet-lagged and anxiety-ridden, to find that his IT team have been set up in a tent with no Wi-Fi, and that the city, conceived as a home for millions, has not even been built yet.
Clay grapples with everything from recalcitrant officials, absent kings, a personal driver who may be the object of an assassination, and a strange growth on his back, all while trying to hold things together for his company and his personal life from the confines of his comfortable hotel room.
Hanks’s likability as Clay keeps this odd and meandering film mostly afloat. The plot shuttles Clay from one strange situation to the next, but his plight is recognizable to anyone who has ever spent time in a foreign country where things that are supposed to be easy just aren’t. As Clay’s resistance to change breaks down, he begins to make friends – first with his Saudi driver Yousef (Alexander Black), whose quirkiness is eventually supplanted by his complexity, then with Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a Danish attaché who begins to show him around. Finally, following a disastrous attempt to cut the growth off of his own back, a tentative little romance blossoms between Clay and his doctor Zahra (Sarita Choudhury).
A Hologram for the King’s general narrative thrust is a clashing and melding of cultures – Saudi culture and the Westerners who enter it are presented with surprising complexity and balance. Clay’s a tourist to a degree, and the story filters through his eyes as he moves from a total alienation from the surrounding culture to an understanding of it and its intricacies. Trying desperately to maintain structure in a world that isn’t permitting it, Clay begins to accept his lack of control over some things, and to embrace the beauty and occasional strangeness. Though he’s a tourist, he’s a tourist who develops an earnest desire to understand the people he meets, and whose presence enriches and changes their lives as well as his own.
Unfortunately, A Hologram for the King isn’t quite certain what story it’s telling. The film introduces and then discards any number of interesting plots and vignettes. Clay has a daughter whom he adores, but who only appears in memories and phone calls that seem intended to provide him with some human attachment and character development without ever fulfilling their purpose. The same goes for his background as a salesman, the hints of disapproval from his father Ron (Tom Skerritt, incredibly underused), and the competition for the IT contract with other firms. Hints of a more substantial cinematic palette appear at the beginning, as Clay’s dreams slip into cartoons, and again during a sojourn to the mountains, but Tykwer seems uncertain what use to make of these intriguing hints.
Poverty and opulence are juxtaposed in the strangest of ways, as are the Western influences that have become a part of Saudi culture, but again, none of these elements seem to make up a coherent theme. At the same time, I was pleased that the film did not fall into melodrama or pander to the Saudi culture – it does represent a certain kind of complexity of day-to-day life in a country far different, and yet weirdly similar, to our own.
A Hologram for the King is an amiable film, hardly a waste of time, but cannot quite live through its lack of a clear central narrative. Clay’s progress from anxiety-ridden failure to a certain sense of balance and comfort in himself is fine as far character development goes, but the film does not treat itself as a character study. Hanks anchors the movie so well and is so enjoyable to watch that it’s difficult to dismiss the film entirely. It’s also impossible to call it successful. There are moments of excitement, moments of tenderness, and even moments of criticism, but a film cannot survive on moments alone.
A meandering yet enjoyable film, A Hologram for the King is saved from failure by the sheer likability of Tom Hanks.