Tom Hanks must be bored. Eschewing popularity and what Variety calls “box-office boffos,” he takes chances, expands his horizons and takes advantage of the fact that he’s so rich and powerful he can do anything he wants to do even if it means disaster. To his credit, he wisely mixes up the pretentiously unwatchables with enough surefire bull’s-eye to remind his fan base he’s already got two Oscars and lost track of the nominations. It’s doubtful that he can ever regain the footing he lost with the three-hour bomb Cloud Atlas, but here he is again with the same German director, Tom Tykwer, and yet another oddball commercial risk called A Hologram for the King.
A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING ★★
Written and directed by: Tom Tykwer
In this rambling, well-shot but inconsequential curio, he plays a failed Boston business consultant named Alan Clay whose foolish career decisions have left him emotionally and financially bankrupt. Trapped in a mid-life crisis, still recovering from a nasty divorce, unable to pay for his daughter’s college tuition, desperate to sell his suburban house with no buyers in sight, and up to his ears in debt, Alan flies halfway across the world in the hope of selling King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia a three-dimensional holographic teleconference system to build a New World Economic City in the middle of the desert. If he gets the contract, Alan’s six-figure commission will pay his bills and jumpstart a fresh new lease on life. What ensues as soon as he checks into the Jeddah Hilton is a catalogue of catastrophes in a clash of cultures that is part comedy, part travelogue, and always punishing, as Alan finds himself trapped in the throes of the Saudis’ first encounters with technology.
Communication with the outside world is impossible when, ensconced in a tent that serves as a temporary office in the middle of nowhere, his staff cannot get a Wi-Fi signal. The king never shows up for appointments. He’s longing for a drink, but alcohol is prohibited in Saudi Arabia, and you can’t even order a Coke from room service, only a Diet Pepsi, which is pretty revolting anywhere. In the hands of a wisecracking taxi driver-tour guide named Yousef (Alexander Black), he misses a turn and ends up in the Holy City of Mecca, forbidden to non-Muslims, disguised in a hood and facing kidnappers and the police. To make matters worse, Alan develops a malignant tumor in his back the size of a golf ball, protruding from his spine like a deadly appendage, and has an affair with Dr. Hakim, the lady surgeon who removes it (played by the great Indian actress Sarita Choudhury). The whole movie teeters on the success or failure of the holograph contract without enough valid trajectory to sustain viewer interest as we await the outcome. Stymied by local customs, bureaucracy and snafus, Alan faces endless confusions and misunderstandings.
Based on a novel by Dave Eggers, the movie is only intermittently fascinating, despite the beautiful burnished location cinematography in Morocco, Egypt, Boston and Saudi Arabia by Frank Griebe, whose camerawork was the best thing about Cloud Atlas. Recurring shots of Tom Hanks in dark suits, profiled against white architectural structures acting as bleached sentinels guarding an ancient universe, are arresting, and small roles played by Ben Whishaw and Tom Skerritt add a bit of badly needed color. But the script (also by Mr. Tykwer, who works more fluidly in his native German) is sketchy, and the resolution is unconvincing. It looks expensive and comes off bland. I have the feeling A Hologram for the King will be best remembered as a tribute to the kind of fast-disappearing exotic filmmaking that guarantees first-class, expense-paid tickets to faraway places with strange-sounding names for actors who would never find their way there with their own credit cards.