There are some actors who can do no wrong – Tom Hanks is the optimal example of this, a man who oozes niceness and always delivers no matter what the role. When I watched the trailer for A Hologram for the King, I thought it looked middling, but I resolved to watch it anyway because of the presence of Hanks, and I was pleasantly surprised – the film is a nice drama anchored by its likeable leading man that is gentle and fun.
Hanks stars as Alan Clay, a failed American businessman who looks to recoup his losses by trying to close the deal of a lifetime in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. On arrival, however, Clay faces a number of problems – neither the King nor Clay’s contact seem to be around, his health seems to be faltering and he struggles to adapt to the local culture. However, he soon begins to make friends – a wise-cracking taxi driver (Alexander Black), a Danish national and party animal (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and a beautiful doctor (Sarita Choudhury) all help him to look at life in a different way and think about what really matters.
This film was adapted from a book by Dave Eggers – I sadly haven’t read it, and thus cannot comment on whether the adaptation does any justice to the source. What I can say, though, is that this film is a very interesting one – it takes things that really should be a bit dark and depressing (fears of illness, confusion and panic) and shapes them into a gentle drama that is often pleasantly funny too. The downside to this is that the darker sides to Clay’s character don’t really come across – he seems genial and bumbling rather than down-and-out.
Films set in foreign lands often tend to play on difference for humour (this person does things different, how weird and funny!) or as an easy solution to whatever ails, but that is not the case here – there is humour through shared experience rather than cultural divide. A bit of controversy has surrounded the film suggesting that it does not portray a completely accurate Saudi Arabia – this is one in which everybody is stinking rich or dirt poor, for example – and that may be a fair point, but I feel it glosses over the point a bit.
The main issue with the foreign land is that its characters are simply provided as counter-points and aids to help the troubled Westerner – Choudhury and Black are good and very enjoyable, but it is hard to argue that they have much to do outside of being the love interest or the comic relief. A Hologram for the King is certainly fair and justified in the happy conclusion it reaches, but the cultural backdrop feels like nothing more than a backdrop, and that’s a bit of a shame.
Tykwer (having already worked with lots of Hanks in Cloud Atlas) employs him to good effect, not quite the everyman hero we are accustomed to. His style here is quite good – he is helming a film in which boredom and inertia are plot points in themselves, and thus the film could quite easy have become quite dull. Fortunately, Tykwer plays a very minimal style well, making scenes of boredom seem stimulating and important (the manner in which he edits in dreams and memory sequences, often splicing them without warning, helps keep the viewer on their toes).
A Hologram for the King is a gentle drama – it fails to be particularly distinctive and it doesn’t really hit all of the notes it goes for. Its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness – a central performance by the ever dependable and ever-good Hanks means the film is happy to coast by on that, rather than pushing itself any further. Thus, it is a nice and pleasant film, but it is ultimately a forgettable one.
Director: Tom Tykwer
Cast: Tom Hanks (Alan), Tom Skerritt (Ron), Ben Whishaw (Dave), Alexander Black (Yousef), Sarita Choudhury (Zahra), Sidse Babett Knudsen (Hanne)
Running Time: 98 Mins