Small independent films (indies) appeal mostly to narrow audiences. Even superstar Tom Hanks can widen the appeal only so much. The title, “A Hologram for the King” expresses the ultimate pursuit of its main character. Yet, the story is more about a veteran salesman who has found himself “finding himself” a long way from home.
Alan Clay (Hanks) is a modern day Willy Loman, “Death of a Salesman” (1951). Alan, a veteran businessman, should be at the top of his game. Regrettably, he is not living his dream, in business or his personal life. He is divorced, lacks funds to pay for his daughter’s college, and has what he believes a last opportunity to make the big sale.
Based on an informal connection to a Saudi prince, Alan was selected by his firm to represent them to sell a new technology to the king. With all his other challenges, Alan is a fish out of water in this strange land. Those who can identify with business travel, changing industrial dynamics and working through cultural barriers, might find this film fascinating and satirical. For some, it is painfully enjoyable and even cathartic.
Those not identifying with these encounters might find this to be a very long, rambling story that is somewhat arbitrary, sometimes unsettling and mostly pointless. Right from the beginning, as Alan is arriving in Saudi Arabia, he asks the audience if they’ve ever found themselves wondering, “How did I get here?”
Sure, he is in a very foreign land, but doesn’t understand how he got to this point in his life. The story could have been set in any foreign land, as it was in Japan for Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation” (2003). Filmed primarily in Morocco and Egypt, it gives us a different glimpse, other than terrorism, into life in the Middle East.
Based on the novel by Dave Eggers, this film was written and directed by Tom Tykwer, who teamed with Hanks on the ambitious 2012 flop, “Cloud Atlas.” Here, there is admittedly no action, not many sets and not much sparkling dialog. But, Hanks conveys feelings of an honest, hardworking man who has lost direction, trying to make the very best of a bad situation that seems to get progressively worse with each move.
Hopefully, not many have ever been in Alan’s position, at least not all the events at the same time, but this collage represents anyone who has faced confusing circumstances that seem frustratingly insurmountable. Yet, somehow Hanks turns this dark melodrama into a sweet quiet comedy. The laughs are mostly on the inside as we quietly watch to see where the meandering script takes this aging trouper next.
On the lighter side of this daunting cross-cultural environment is Hank’s Saudi driver Yousef (Alexander Black), who offers comedic relief to some expectedly tense situations. Indian/British actress Sarita Choudhury provides Alan’s romantic interest as Zahra, his Saudi doctor. Although there is not enough chemistry between the two, their relationship seems plausible, given their unique situations.
Although we witness injustice and institutional oppression, more importantly, we see Saudis as people with not dissimilar values as Americans, despite our cultural differences. Those differences are difficult for most Americans to embrace or accept. For some, there are too many challenges for the lead character to face simultaneously.
“A Hologram for the King” is 98 minutes and rated R for some sexuality/nudity, language and brief drug use. This is not a “typical” Tom Hanks picture. It is a small movie that might not have survived without his unique ability to deliver such utter despair and anxiety, under such a confident outward appearance.
Alan is a sad man aware of his shortcomings and full of regret but eternally hopeful for the next big deal to change his life. This disheartening, yet expectant story often drifts aimlessly and is not fully credible. It is clearly not for everyone. The limited audience is even further diminished as not many want to be reminded they lost their mojo.