Tom Hanks rarely disappoints, but you can’t help but feel slightly let down by his latest feature, A Hologram for the King. Based on Dave Eggers’s whimsical 2012 novel of the same name, the Tom Tykwer-directed movie is a faithful adaptation that never quite lives up to its potential, despite another endearing performance by one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars.
A Hologram for The King gets off to a memorable and unexpected start, with Hanks’s salesman character Alan Clay voicing the spoken word intro of the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” directly into the camera. “How did I get here?” he asks, “here” meaning divorced, financially struggling, and about to fly to Saudi Arabia to present his company’s latest holographic technology to the king. It’s an entertaining dream sequence that seems to promise a sharp comedy ahead, but the rest of the film never resumes the same bright, amusing tone of the scene.
After arriving at his destination, Clay’s problems only continue to pile up. His three-person team is set up in a tent with no reliable Wi-Fi, his primary point person for the presentation is never around, and he’s facing increasing pressure from his corporate bosses to make something happen. With no one even attempting to establish an estimated timeline for the king’s return, Clay finds himself caught in a waiting game in middle of the Saudi desert, with every day bringing a new set of obstacles.
Also not helping matters? The worrying lump on his back — a literal symbol of his rapidly growing troubles.
Luckily, Clay has a few people in his corner. Among them, his kind daughter Kit (Tracey Fairaway), who unhesitatingly forgives her dad’s inability to come up with her tuition money, and Yoused (Alexander Black), a friendly driver who transports Clay to the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade and thankfully provides some much-needed energy to the film. There’s also the Danish associate Hanne (Sidse Babbett Knudsen), who gifts him a forbidden bottle of booze and unsuccessfully attempts to seduce him, and the alluring Zahra (Sarita Coudhury), a doctor who treats Clay several times and has a subdued but kind demeanor.
The movie, also written by Tykwer, replicates many interactions from Eggers’s work, some even word-for-word. Yet, the nuances of the novel don’t always translate to the screen, and oftentimes, it feels like nothing is really happening. As Clay is forced to continually extend his trip, there are a lot of repetitive sequences — him returning to the hotel at the end of the day to be greeted by the same concierge, taking a shower and pouring a drink only to inevitably oversleep and find himself back in Yoused’s beaten-down car the next morning. The latter at least leads to some charming moments, with the many drives to and from resulting in a nice, easy camaraderie between the two wildly different men.
The deepening involvement between Clay and Zahra is less believable. Though their relationship results in some astute observations about bridging cultural differences, it also ends up coming across like a last-minute addition — especially since their connection only blossoms after Clay’s pitch to the king is delivered.
Despite its somewhat fragmented storytelling, the movie is anchored by the always dependable Hanks, who is as likable as ever as a frazzled everyman looking for a new sense of purpose in a foreign country. Though this is far from his most challenging or his most interesting role, the actor plays the fish-out-of-water scenario well, leaving you feeling sympathetic, not annoyed, when he makes some miscalculated jokes during his attempts to adapt to the rules of his new cultural surroundings. Case in point? While wandering around taking photos of the stunning desert scenery (actually located in Morocco, where the film was shot), he jokes to a passerby that he’s doing freelance work for the CIA. That’s like “joking about a bomb in airport security,” Yoused later points out, to which an embarrassed Clay replies, “I knew it as soon as I said it.”
Left in less capable hands, A Hologram for the King may have been less effective at getting its message across. As it is, the movie is a adequately pleasant journey through a visually vibrant landscape that never reaches the same depth as its star.