Even while it was in production, Tom Tykwer’s A Hologram for the King fostered a dual atmosphere of intrigue and questionability. After all, it was based off a lesser and somewhat inconsequential novel by Dave Eggers, whose own evocative prose styling was the sole reason to experience it on the page. It didn’t boost confidence that most of the book’s most compelling virtues were precisely the sort of nuances that get cut in a cinematic adaptation. On that proverbial other hand, Tykwer isn’t exactly a filmmaker who travels traditional Hollywood pathways when adapting challenging works; he found the odd and distinctive hearts of both David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (which he co-directed with the Wachowskis) and Patrick Suskind’s Perfume. Perhaps then, it isn’t surprising that Hologram ends up somewhere in the middle of what we would expect; instead of trying to overcome its slight, pretty pedigree, it embraces the surface textures and mines them for as much sensation and emotion as can be plundered. The result is not unpleasant or without its moments, but there’s disappointment in being able to so easily shrug off an effort by artists like Tykwer and Tom Hanks, who plays the lead here as cheerfully as the material will allow.
That may sound like I’m coming down on Hologram for being intentionally airy or purposefully sidestepping the morose personality of a similar work like Death of a Salesman. It is true that in structure and overall atmosphere, Tykwer’s version of this story more closely resembles romantic diversions like Salmon Fishing in the Yemen or even Hanks’ own lackluster Larry Crowne than it does Arthur Miller. That kind of approach can work well if the material warrants it, but from the very opening scene, the movie, like its protagonist, keeps suggesting greater depths that only frustrate when the surface returns to a placid, banal calm. When Tykwer configures that aforementioned prologue as a surrealistic karaoke moment where Hanks’ salesman uses the Talking Heads to underscore the absurdity and frustration of his current lifestyle, it feels incongruous for the film to wrap up in such a picaresque and seemingly feel-good fashion. What begins as a potentially challenging and quirky indictment of the pitfalls of modern commerce — the musical sequence recalls and kids the similarly corrosive melodic lead-in to Hanks’ Joe vs the Volcano — doesn’t seem very interested in sustaining itself as such.
Maybe Tykwer just fell into the Tom Hanks trap, one that’s claimed the artistic ambitions of many a great filmmaker looking to topple a seemingly impenetrable work by using the actor’s undeniable charisma and charm to woo an audience not keen on existential heavy-lifting. To be fair, there are worse fates for a film than allowing an actor like Hanks, who gets into a groove here early on and is near the top of his game, to lead it, Pied Piper-style, down the road of likability. Really, it’s not even Hanks alone that gets Hologram distracted, as performances by Alexander Black, playing Yousef, the assistant to the titular Saudi Arabian king, and Sarita Choudhury, as Zahra, a local surgeon Alan falls for, tap into that amiable wavelength and move us further away from the intentional void lurking at Hologram’s heart.
Everything in this clean and tidy little film wants to play as another version of that old chestnut where an exotic foreign land heals an addled middle-aged westerner, ignoring the fact that Alan Clay, despite being there to literally sell a hologram to a king, essentially spends time waiting while nothing of any real essence happens to him. That, Eggers seemed to be arguing, was the downbeat truth of Hologram; that the real illusion of connectivity was in Alan’s makeshift human experience, not in the hi-tech communication devices he’s trying to schlep in hopes of re-igniting his stalled career.
Hanks does bring Alan, his decency and his insecurities, to sparkling and clear life, and Tykwer presents us with a Saudi Arabia that is teeming with vitality and texture. The strongest sequences show Alan tooling around this unfamiliar landscape, finding ways to internalize this culture’s strengths and weaknesses as some kind of personal reflection of his own successes and failures. The mild-mannered hypocrisy he displays isn’t lost on Hanks, who can be found rolling some of the screenplays lines this way and that, before firing them like subtle barbs against the mundane structure of the second half.
Choudhury is possibly the warmest and most appealing element of the film, but her humble yet vivacious spirit belongs in a separate film, maybe one where Hank’s Alan follows her over and they do some musical numbers together. All of this to say that Hologram is a fine experience as a tranquil matinee entertainment, but it fails to pull off its own illusion because it never quite understands what sort of story it really is telling, and whether or not it should embrace that melancholy brewing in the air, or like Alan, put on a happy face, and just enjoy all that desert and all those camels. Unsurprisingly, the book had many of the same issues, so perhaps it was too much to ask for anything else. Go to this one for Hanks and his outstanding supporting cast, and for cinematography that is legitimately enchanting, but look for anything more and you’ll be doing more waiting than Alan.
A Hologram for the King is now playing in wide release.