A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING * * *
Starring Tom Hanks, Sarita Choudhury, Alexander Black, Sidse Babett Knudsen and Tom Skerritt. Written for the screen and directed by Tom Tykwer.
Tom Tykwer’s A Hologram For The King is about a man realizing that the times have passed him by, and ironically the film itself is an example of a genre so unfashionable at our current pop cultural moment you could make a masterpiece in it and people would still scoff on Twitter.
This film isn’t a masterpiece by any means, but it is at times very good, with an unfussy jewel of a performance by Tom Hanks that’s all the more remarkable for appearing so effortless. (Hanks was perhaps over-awarded in the nineties, but I think we take him for granted these days because he makes everything look so darned easy.)
A wonderfully disorienting opening dream sequence finds Hanks shout-singing a re-write of the Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime” as his large automobile, beautiful house and beautiful wife disappear in billowing clouds of purple smoke. His name is Alan Clay, a glad-handing, “hail fellow well met” sort of salesman who was once a bigshot at Schwinn before he moved their manufacturing to China and globalization ate the company alive.
Now Alan’s got an expensive divorce, a house nobody wants to buy and a daughter whose college tuition he can’t afford. He’s currently working for a much younger boss who can’t stand him, on his way to Saudi Arabia for a Hail Mary pass of a presentation, trying to sell the King on a spectacular teleconferencing software system that incorporates three-dimensional holograms. (Hence the terrible title.)
Tykwer, the kooky German known for ga-ga head-trips like Run Lola Run and Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer, previously directed Hanks in Cloud Atlas and at first would seem an odd choice for this sort of earthbound character piece. But even though he stumbles over a couple of klutzy literary metaphors (the film is based on a Dave Eggers novel, after all) Tykwer has a way with widescreen compositions that emphasize the eeriness of Alan’s surroundings. The King is building an entire new city from the ground up an hour’s drive out in the desert, and it’s a visual marvel of shimmering, half-completed extravagances planted next to nothing.
The Saudi Arabian Royal bureaucracy quickly turns purgatorial for our poor Alan. Stalls are followed by delays and his back-slapping, Dale Carnegie routine (try and count how many times he asks strangers where they’re from) begins to feel more like banging his head against a wall. The kids in IT don’t get any of his Lawrence Of Arabia references, and Hanks expertly coats his palsy-walsy routine with a thickening layer of flopsweat. At night Alan goes back to his hotel and gets snockered on illegal hooch. He oversleeps most mornings and picks at a sinister-looking growth jutting out of his back that’s some sort of unfortunate embodiment of his spiritual malaise. (Told ya ‘bout them pesky literary devices.)
The movie seems to be running into trouble with millennial critics snickering about “white people problems” while trying to prove how “woke” they all are. So much of culture writing has devolved lately into insight-free attendance-taking I worry we’re no longer allowed to have any empathy for a character who is clearly in pain just because he doesn’t fit into a pre-approved demographic. A Hologram For The King feels like a darker, more artful companion piece to Hanks’ widely mocked 2011 directorial effort Larry Crowne, which similarly followed a downsized worker forced to start over at mid-life.
Oddly structured, the film drifts off in the final third to become almost another movie altogether. These once-forbidding landscapes become sumptuous and welcoming, while the initially frantic cutting seems to chill out along with Alan as he overcomes his anxiety — growing downright serene as he embarks on a hesitant romance with a Saudi doctor played by Mississippi Masala’s stunning Sarita Choudhury.
Respectfully negotiating their cultural differences while emphasizing shared humanity and good humor, A Hologram For The King blossoms into the kind of generous, middle-aged love story we seldom see at the movies. It’s chivalrous and sexy, even if it ain’t “woke” enough for the kids.