“Look. They are sweeping sand in the desert.”
If you’re doubling-down on the existential content of your film as soon as it begins, you can do worse than Talking Heads classic “Once in a Lifetime”. Not only does it perfectly encapsulate the fallout of a mid-life crisis wherein everything you believed made you who you are disappears (Poof!), but it accurately mirrors Alan Clay’s (Tom Hanks) life too. He’s a recently divorced father forced to travel to Saudi Arabia in hopes of landing a huge deal selling holographic technology to a king for a vast city that may or may not be built in ten years time. His ex hates him, his daughter can’t afford college, and this is pretty much his last chance at professional credibility. Alan desperately needs a win … and direction.
Based on Dave Eggers‘ novel, Tom Tykwer‘s A Hologram for the King proves a delightful little adventure into the surreal world of the Middle East’s juxtaposition between extreme wealth and poverty. It’s a land that can make you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams or crush your soul in the heat of its desert climate and oppressive culture—a far cry from living the high life at Schwinn before a morally questionably yet fiscally rational decision began the long downward spiral of Alan’s life. Yet here he is bolstered by the memory of a bad joke that inexplicably made the nephew of the Saudi King he’s pitching to laugh years ago. His job is to sell a product able to sell itself. Life, however, is never so simple.
The premise is ripe for fish-out-of-water comedy and existential upheaval and it delivers both in large doses even if my laughter seemed much louder and more enthusiastic than the others in my theater. It’s a subtle humor that relies on Hanks’ everyman charisma and awkwardness trying to diffuse situations with levity despite forgetting where he is and how dangerous the wrong wording proves. For instance: never dryly deliver the line, “I’ve only done a few freelance jobs with them” when asked if you’re a CIA Agent. Luckily Alan meets more than a few friendly souls who take a shine to him even though he’s at the lowest point in his life. They lift him up, treat him like a human being, and provide room to let him breathe.
This is huge when so much is riding on a deal that appears at every turn to be as transparently false as the hologram image of Ben Whishaw that Alan’s company’s tech produces. The King is traveling the nation so rigorously that he hasn’t been to this quietly sterile construction site of a city in over a year; the emissary meant to meet Alan in his absence (Khalid Laith‘s Karim) is never where he says he’ll be; and Clay’s team on the ground is stuck in a presentation tent without the necessary wi-fi to work, any food to eat, or a working air conditioner. And while everything begins falling apart—including each chair he tries to sit upon—Alan’s boss calls for updates he simply doesn’t have.
This means the driver he befriends after religiously sleeping in way past his alarm (Alexander Black‘s Yousef), a Danish woman helping him relax (Sidse Babett Knudsen‘s Hanne), and the doctor assisting in figuring out what a weird growth on his back is (Sarita Choudhury‘s Zahra) are all he has to make him smile and remember the confident salesman he used to be before chaos hit and one failure changed his fortune. The three put him in situations he never imagined he’d be in during this trip and each has a way of opening him up to take chances again. I only wonder if the source material gave him latitude to take wilder ones than the film does because something is definitely missing here. The film feels incomplete.
I think Tykwer does this intentionally so that he isn’t spelling things out, but the actions onscreen aren’t solid enough to sustain the choice. Let’s take the opening. It’s a wild musical bit where Hanks actually sings the aforementioned Talking Heads song as the objects he mentions—home, car, wife—explode in plumes of smoke. Suddenly he’s on a roller coaster that flickers to him lying in bed before the initial jolt of breath reveals he’s overslept. You can’t help but love the bold maneuver to drop us into the story with such a weird sequence because it leaves us as off-balance as the character. But what comes of it? Besides a brief reprise via an animated television ad later, Tykwer never approaches this level of strange again.
Instead we receive oddly dreamlike/nightmarish transitions that prove disquieting because the tone is of real world tangibility rather than fantastical imagination. Alan is sent to what is described as a gorgeous apartment only to climb a dilapidated stairwell whose flights are separated by a group of local migrant workers engaged in a physical altercation akin to back alley war. But when he knocks on the apartment door of his destination a whole different world is exposed of modernity and affluence. It’s an oasis surrounded by squalor and it’s a powerful juxtaposition that goes nowhere besides adding to Alan’s confusion. The same applies to Yousef’s fearing a rich man who believes he’s having an affair with his wife and Hanne’s introducing him to the European rabbit hole of excess.
While it all screws with Alan’s mind, we in the audience see it as real. There’s no ethereal atmosphere proposing it to be fiction. We don’t rewind to watch a sequence from clearer eyes. It’s happening. It’s weird, yes, but it’s truth. So instead of feeling for Alan and empathizing with his internal war of anxiety, we pity his poor luck and odd situation because something’s missing to connect on a deeper level. Why show Tom Skerritt as his disappointed father when he adds little to the Schwinn story we already know? It’s as though there was more to the cameo and the emotional weight of the phone call Alan makes to try and impress the man, but Tykwer needed to cut it for time.
It’s a distracting realization to witness head-scratching incidents remaining unexplained, but it didn’t ruin the overall experience. I thought Hanks was wonderful in the role of pressure-cooker ready to burst and his rapport with Black is infectious, authentic, and hilarious. There are so many little things that tickled me throughout to propel my enjoyment of the strangeness into exceeding my confusion about the man himself. The Groundhog Day sensibility of repetition and monotony plays well against the exotic locale and constantly shifting environments from opulence to destitution. It numbs Alan until only those bright spots of Yousef, Hanne, and Zahra can break through. They remind him about what’s good and what matters. And eventually he rediscovers his best self. He accepts that he belongs as much as them.
 Tom Hanks in A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING. Photo Credit: Siffedine Elamine
 Sarita Choudhury in A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING. Photo credit: Frederic Batier
 Alexander Black and Tom Hanks in A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING. Photo credit: Frederic Batier