Based on Dave Eggers novel of the same name, A Hologram for the King stars Tom Hanks as Alan Clay, a businessman whose better days – and home – are miles behind him. It seems Alan was once a successful businessman behind the American production of Schwinn bikes. That is, until a moment of poor judgment moves production to China, which undermines the company’s potential and leaving Americans out of work.
With his former glory gone and age usurping his ambition Alan seeks success and redemption in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Alan and his company vie for an IT contract on a yet to be high-tech city in the desert where they plan to present a 3D hologram telecommunication demonstration to the King himself. All this happens amidst a mentally straining relationship with his estranged ex-wife and long distance relationship with his loving daughter Kit (Tracey Fairaway).
One would expect culture clash would be the worst of Alan’s problems, but his retributive excursion succumbs to other problems quick. On the first day Alan oversleeps and has to hire Yousef (Alexander Black) – an eccentric lover of American bands like Chicago and ELO – to take him to the would-be city. Once he arrives, hours late, he is forced to deal with a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare in an attempt to retrieve answers as to the whereabouts of the King and his messenger Karim Al-Ahmad (Khalid Laith); no one seems to know who Alan is supposed to talk to beside Karim, a personality as enigmatic and effervescent as the King himself.
With no real reason to show up to a scorching tent with no food, weak WiFi, broken air conditioning, and younger co-workers whom he can’t connect with, Alan instead spends his time with his newfound friend Yousef, who adds a bit of charm by sharing the current state of his text-based affair with a married woman.
Alexander Black, an American actor playing an Arab, is problematic and perhaps the reason why this quasi-indie with someone as high-profile as Tom Hanks has gone very under the radar, especially given the current controversy over “whitewashing” in Hollywood films. Is it possible there are no charming Arab actors, whose performances seem to be limited to stoic background bit actors and aloof royalty? Doubtful. Nevertheless, as troubling as the casting choice maybe, this is in no way an indication of Alexander Black’s talents, he is quite good in this film.
A Hologram for the King is supposed to be a film about a man in search of honor, redemption, and will to live, but writer / director Tom Tykwer can’t seem to find any meaning in Dave Eggers’ book, struggling to evoke a glimpse of Alan’s emotional landscape. To say the least, the film is a barebones adaptation, taking the skeletal structure of the book but completely marginalizes and overlooks the books soul and emotional journey.
Any notion of an emotional through-line is largely absent and only make brief appearances in some key scenes – specifically between an infatuated Alan and Dr. Zahra (Sarita Choudhury). However, in a scene not involving the two, Alan calls his father (Tom Skerritt), where it quickly becomes apparent that he regrets the call. A moment his father uses to remind Alan of his failures seems to evaporate faster than it was conjured.
That potentially powerful moment merely dissipates into the gripping rigidity of Tykwer’s plot-heavy adaptation, appearing to have little interest in fully developed characters, especially Alan, whose fears and desires never become concrete realities, instead whizzing by them as fleeting moments of relative interest. Despite the character’s pasts very little actually affects the plot in any meaningful way.
Besides the film’s inability to provide a rich character background – the past being a strong emotional crux in the novel – Alan’s search for a drive and energy isn’t enough to warrant an iota of empathy or even outrage from the audience, leaving them to hang and wonder where the film is actually going. In the novel Alan seemed desperate for things to go his way, but here Hanks – whose film personality precedes him – doesn’t seem to evoke the emotional stakes that are so apparent in Eggers book.
Even if one thinks about it as only a film, A Hologram for the King is still a badly conceived one. Any good dramatic film – original or adapted – requires a meaningful emotional journey, something Tom Tykwer’s film mistakenly and carelessly overlooks. It’s strange because there’s a charming Sprechgesang moment near the beginning with Alan performing the intro to Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime,” a metaphor for his sad life. Like everything else, even this eccentric and anecdotal moment (and style) quickly disappears. Instead, we’re left with an emotional desert of vacant plot developments that amount to nothing particularly resonant or meaningful.
Instead, A Hologram for the King settles with being a shoddy and sloppy adaptation whose ultimate sin is failing to lay out an emotional groundwork that would have elevated the film from it’s fragmented plot, which had more profound implications in its original printed format but makes little sense in this surprisingly disappointing film.