A film review by Craig J. Koban May 7, 2016


2016, R, 97 mins.


Tom Hanks as Alan Clay  /  Alexander Black as Yousef  /  Sarita Choudhury as Zahra  /  Sidse Babett Knudsen as Hanne  /  Ben Whishaw as Dave  /  Tom Skerritt as Ron  /  Tracey Fairaway as Kit

Written and directed by Tom Tykwer  /  Based on the novel by Dave Eggers

If Tom Hanks were in a film involving him reading names and numbers out of a phone book for 90 minutes then I’m quite convinced that he would somehow make it endearingly watchable.  Like Jimmy Stewart before him, Hanks has always been one of the more dependable everyman actors of his generation, and is able to infuse affable vitality into characters and scripts that don’t completely rise up to the occasion.  

Hanks’ considerable charisma more than elevates the more prosaic aspects of A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING, a new existentialist mid-life crisis dramedy from German director Tom Tykwer (RUN, ROLA RUN and CLOUD ATLAS), based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Dave Eggers.  The film is a real piece of hodgepodge cinema through and through: some of its pieces work flawlessly, whereas others prove to be awkwardly distracting.  It’s a sometimes funny fish-out-of-water tale of a stranger in a strange land, a topical commentary piece on our uncertain social-economic times, a touching chronicle of one man’s growing dissatisfaction with himself and his career, and finally a touching and sweetly rendered cross-cultural romance.  Obviously, Tykwer is adept at trying to marry all of these divergent elements together, but even when that hefty ordeal is too much to bare he has the reliably stalwart shoulders of Hanks to fall back onto to help lead the charge.  

A HOLOGRAM FOR A KING plants its own unique brand of tonal weirdness right from the get-go.  The film is also steeped in low-key misery on top of that.  Alan Clay (Hanks) is a desperate and mostly washed up salesman that is failing both as a businessman and as a husband and father.  The opening sequence of the film takes the form of a strange and surreal dream within Alan’s mind as he tries to sift through the chaos of his work and home life while singing “Once In A Lifetime” by The Talking Heads.  He abruptly wakes up from it while on route in an airplane to Saudi Arabia.  In hopes of turning around his dismal professional performance as of late and secure a hefty payday required to send his daughter (Jane Perry) to college, Alan wishes to sell the king there on an audacious and possibly revolutionary new type of video conferencing that relies on moving holograms of the participants (think of the Princess Leia hologram from STAR WARS – but interactive both ways – and you get the idea).  



Alan has an awful lot to prove…and to amend for.  His past work life involved tanking his employer when he outsourced hundreds of American jobs, not to mention that he wants to show to his current boss that he still has a relevant place within his own industry, one that seems to be spitting out aging dinosaurs like him.  Anxiety runs insanely high for Alan upon arriving in Saudi Arabia, and while battling chronic jet leg and acclimatizing himself to a new foreign land he grows even more demoralized when he learns that his tech team – instrumental in delivering a killer presentation to the Saudi king – has been working in a sweaty tent in the middle of the desert with no food, AC and workable Wi-Fi.  Daily attempts to meet with the king before his crucial presentation, let alone getting even basic details about his whereabouts, proves endlessly frustrating to Alan.  Making matters worse for him is the discovery of a rather large cyst-like growth on his back, which takes him to a local hospital and under the care of Dr. Zahra Hakim (the lovely Sarita Chourdry), who tries to ease Alan’s concerns about his abrupt new medical condition. 

Now, it doesn’t take a mystical fortuneteller to predict that love will unavoidably be in the air between the demoralized and sick Alan and the kindly female doctor, but A HOLOGRAM FOR A KING doesn't slavishly feel the need to rush out of the gate when it comes to its preordained romantic subplot.  The film is more compelled, early on, with exploring the sensation of estrangement that Alan goes through during his times in a country that he confidently inhabits, but nevertheless never fully understands on a cultural level.  Tykwer seems driven by slowly developing Alan from the inside out as a fully realized and compelling character before allowing for sparks to fly between him and Dr. Hakim.  Alan, rather refreshingly, is not ostensibly presented as a saint.  He’s a businessman that has done wrong to people in the past (Tykwer captures Alan’s mental frustration of ethical unease through carefully rendered flashbacks that are arbitrarily sprinkled throughout the film, some taking the form of brief shots that speak volumes).  Tykwer manages to find a way for us to identify with and empathize with Alan, despite his personal flaws and past occupational indiscretions.  We feel the suffocating weight of stress placed on Alan throughout A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING, so when he does find a comfortable soulmate in Dr. Hakim it’s more cathartically refreshing than predictable. 

Hanks has an intuitive, almost effortless manner of conveying the inner turmoil of his character with subtle, but efficient strokes.  Lesser actors would have played up Alan’s ever-increasing level of panic to sensationalistic and broad levels, but Hanks is smart enough to know that a less-is-more approach here is the right and commendable one.  There’s also the somewhat subdued fact in A HOLOGRAM FOR A KING that Alan is, when it boils right down to it, a spiteful recession era capitalist.   Yet, in Hanks’ hands he’s not a one note economic baddie here.  Multiple flashback shots showing him standing in front of hundreds of workers trying to drum up the fortitude to let them all know that they’re about to be terminated are quietly powerful and sad…you also feel the deep conflict within Alan as well.  We feel for this poor sap alongside all the other saps he’s about to fire.  Only an actor of Hanks’ high caliber and tact could pull off such a prickly dichotomy; that he can imbue Alan with quirky likeability while relaying all of his fears and guilt is a testament to his strengths. 

Granted, A HOLOGRAM FOR A KING is replete with wonderfully realized personalities beyond Hanks, like a fairly winning turn by newcomer Alexander Black playing Yousef, a local man that tries to help Alan wade through all of his country’s unfamiliar customs while serving as his unofficial chauffer.  Then, of course, there is Sarita Choudhury’s refined turn as the delicate and nurturing doctor that has her own share of grief-stricken pains that she must sort through as well.  Her tranquil chemistry with Hanks is so authentic and unforced that it greatly overrides the formulaic manner of their inherent courtship.  Regrettably, I only wished that other characters were given as much embellishment and screen time, like Tom Skerrit's blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance as Alan’s domineering and unsympathetic father.  He appears briefly in a rather hostile phone exchange with his son, angrily chastising him for his previous lack of compassion for the common middle class working man.  Peculiarly, he’s never heard from or seen again in the film. 

A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING struggles a bit with a few other subplots, some of which are sort of hastily introduced and then carelessly discarded for reasons never specified.  And as mentioned, there’s rarely a moment in the film when you can’t foresee precisely where Alan’s emotional and spiritual journey will take him next.  Yet, Tykwer’s film has an appealing, almost idiosyncratic strangeness about it and it fully embraces its offbeat tone and then further homogenizes that with moments of keen observational comedy and dramatic sincerity.  It also helps that we have Hanks quarterbacking the entire effort with his uniquely laudable brand of on-screen appeal.  Only he could make the middle-aged pathos and utter humiliation of a troubled man – and his subsequent redemption – both heartbreakingly rendered and humorously agreeable to sit though. 

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