A Hologram for the King
A failed businessman takes a job with an IT firm working in Saudi Arabia so that he can get back on track after some unpleasantness in his personal life. Tom Tykwer’s A Hologram for the King is based on the Dave Eggers novel of the same name.
The title “A Hologram for the King” refers to the reason he has come to Saudi Arabia. He has come to deliver a presentation showcasing some revolutionary technology to the King so that his firm can make a lot of money and he can repair his fractured situation. The film isn’t actually about that but it does bubble along in the background as being one of the things he has to deal with. In more abstract terms the “hologram” represents things that are far away but still feel close and real. At its core the film is about a man trying to start fresh and escape his problems but they keep coming back to haunt him.
Tom Hanks plays the failed businessman, Alan Clay and does a great job as usual. We’ve all seen Tom Hanks in films before so we know what to expect when he’s on-screen. I’ve certainly never been aware of a performance where he appears to phone it in and this film is no exception in that regard. Hanks is instantly likeable as Alan and the situations he finds himself in get gradually worse but in a realistic way.
I like how the film explores the idea of a man privately succumbing to stress while the outside world sees him as polite and positive. This manifests itself in different ways throughout the film such as oversleeeping due to an inability to get over jet lag and a mysterious lump that appears on his bag. Alan describes himself as lacking direction and energy which comes across really well. Some of the most effective scenes in the film in terms of Tom Hanks’ performance are when he is alone in his hotel room with nothing but his thoughts to keep him company.
It isn’t explicitly detailed other than fleeting references made by Alan but he is having a hard time with a messy divorce and feels really guilty over not having enough money to send his daughter to college despite promising to do so. This weighs heavily on him throughout the film and contributes to issues that get gradually more severe as things go on.
The job that he has to do is almost incidental but is nonetheless a recurring problem that seems as if it will never be solved. Essentially the true story of this film is how a man deals with being overcome with stress until he gets to breaking point and has to do something about it. It’s a character study that works well and Hanks expertly brings it to life but the overall experience of watching the film doesn’t support it as well as it could.
Things start out well with a strong opening that establishes the stakes and has fun with the fish out of water elements that are so familiar to all of us. Many of the barriers come from cultural misunderstandings and the film establishes this without being insensitive.
A big problem here is uneven pacing. There is so much focus on the fact that the job needs to be done before it all but fades away and becomes unimportant meaning that the vast amount of screen time devoted to it feels somewhat wasted. I was looking for this part of the story to pay off in some way and it does but it is left as something of a footnote.
In general I felt like the film was meandering through Alan’s exploration of Saudi Arabia with little point to much of it. Seeing certain sights and how he reacts to them are all well and good but it didn’t feed into an overall narrative that was going anywhere so the whole thing somewhat lost me by the end.
Alan’s main relationships are with a hired driver named Yousef (Alexander Black) who drives him around and teaches him about the society he is living in. Their scenes together are always a delight with some really funny dialogue exchanges. Yousef’s casual reaction to the risk of his car being rigged to explode and his Western influenced musical taste are notable highlights.
Yousef largely disappears in the second half of the film and the whole thing is all the worse for it. Their was no real indication that his role was over other than he stopped turning up. It’s a shame as it had been well established that he was Alan’s only friend in this strange land.
He also forms a relationship with a local doctor named Zahra (Sarita Chodhury). The idea of them meeting on a non professional basis is dealt with and it does come across as interesting but I don’t feel that the film gives enough time to their relationship to make it feel real. Any scene the do share is well acted and written well enough but if more time had been spent developing it then I would have found it more believable.
A solid film that doesn’t quite hit the mark as well as it could have. The general issue I had with this film is that the good things about it weren’t developed as well as they could have been. Things are brought up, seem like they are going somewhere and then fade into the background. This happens with almost everything so it’s hard to be fully invested in it. As always, Tom Hanks delivers a great performance but it’s not enough to elevate everything around it.
- a great performance from Tom Hanks
- the interesting exploration of dealing with mounting stress
- hilarious scenes between Alan and his driver Yousef
- uneven pacing
- interesting plot elements dropped before they have reached their potential