In his mid-50's, salesman Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) has lost just about everything when he's sent to lead a team to sell software in Saudi Arabia. Faced with bewildering obstacles, a strange lump on his back and increasing pressure from his boss back home, Alan awaits his moment to present "A Hologram for the King."
After a jaunty musical opening sequence with Hanks singing Talking Heads' 'Once in a Lifetime' as his house, wife and car disappear in clouds of purple smoke, writer/director Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run," "Cloud Atlas"), leans on surrealistic comedy and a third act romance in his adaptation of the Dave Eggers novel. Hanks is compelling fighting a last stand on shifting sands of self doubt and a new star is born in stand-up comic Alexander Black as Hanks's 'driver, guide, hero!' Yousef. The film looks gorgeous, Tykwer's go-to cinematographer Frank Griebe giving his Morocco locations a sharp, clean look. But the adaptation is problematic, Tykwer incorporating his own research experiences in bits that go nowhere, the romance a seemingly one-sided male fantasy.
In his Jeddah, Saudi Arabia hotel room, Alan struggles with jet lag and the guilt he feels over not being able to support his beloved daughter Kit's (Tracey Fairaway, "Enough Said," seen via Skype sessions) college education. Late for his first day at the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade, Alan ends up with Yousef, a devil-may-care guy driving an old American beater that he checks daily for explosives which may have been installed by a man who wants to kill him for cheating with his wife. Alan is astonished to find his team housed in a large tent with iffy WiFi and no food. Marching over to the 'Welcome Center,' Alan is stonewalled trying to meet his contact, Karim Al-Ahmad (Khalid Laith, "The Devil's Double," World War Z"), by a receptionist (Amira El Sayed) whose information proves wildly unreliable. Slipping upstairs, Alan meets Danish accountant Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen, "The Duke of Burgundy") who introduces him to the partying ex-pat crowd and illegal alcohol.
Alan is lied to, ditched and berated by his dad back home (Tom Skerritt), who pulls at the scab of his son's failure of vision for contracting Chinese labor for Schwinn Bicycle, a move that destroyed the company (and one which will come back to haunt him, albeit with little consequence). Drunk and depressed, Alan takes a steak knife to the mysterious growth on his back, a move that lands him in the hospital. Oddly, he is attended to by a female doctor, Zahra Hakem (Sarita Choudhury, Showtime's 'Homeland,' "Learning to Drive"), and an unspoken attraction begins to simmer.
The vision of a man approaching obsolescence trying to navigate an incomprehensible landscape is rich with metaphor, but Tykwer goes in too many directions at once. There are the relationships with his father, ex-wife and daughter. There is a weird trip to visit Yousef's father in which Alan is smuggled through the City of Mecca (no non-Muslims are allowed) only to arrive in the country to do...nothing, except clash with a local over a weak C.I.A. joke. When he finally meets the elusive Al-Ahmad, the man leaves him at a KAEC apartment complex where Alan witnesses squatters? employees? engaged in a physical battle which Tykwer leaves a mystery. There are not one, but two romantic interests, the first quickly abandoned, the latter overtaking the film entirely (Hanks is utterly convincing in his obsession with Zahra, but why the successful, wealthy doctor falls for the failed American businessman is perplexing). The film wraps abruptly, seeming success quickly deflated, love happily triumphing.
Tykwer's taken the sting out of "A Hologram for the King," leaving us with a surreal fantasy. It's a classic 'interesting failure,' but the acting is fine, the production beautiful.
Robin did not see this film.
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