A Hologram for the King (2015) / Comedy-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for some sexuality/nudity, language and brief drug use
Running Time: 97 min.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Alexander Black, Sarika Choudhury, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Tracey Fairaway, Jane Perry,
Small role: Tom Skerritt, Ben Whishaw
English version: Angela Galuppo, Paul Giamatti, Tony Hale, Susan Sarandon, J.K. Simmons
Director: Tom Tykwer
Screenplay: Tom Tykwer (based on the novel by Dave Eggers)
Review published April 24, 2016

A Hologram for the King is based on the acclaimed book of the same name by Dave Eggers, published in 2012.  It's written and directed by Tom Tykwer (The International, Perfume), who reunites with Tom Hanks (Bridge of Spies, Saving Mr. Banks), who he directed once before for segments of Cloud Atlas.  This film runs much more economically than that opus, and is a great deal less ponderous, with only the dream sequence at the film's start, where Tom Hanks' character has the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" playing in his head.

Hanks plays Alan Clay, a recently divorced IT salesman, down on his luck in both his personal and professional life, called out on a rare assignment to Saudi Arabia in order to try to peddle his company's pricey holographic technology to the king for use in their rich country.  Many missteps occur as Alan is never quite able to get his bearings there either, persistently having to call for a ride with a local cab driver named Yousef (Black) to get him to the site in a tardy fashion, often giving the American fish-out-of-water a crash course on local customs, while he has to return day after day to try to get help for his IT team to be able to set up optimal conditions for the presentation to the king who is told will be coming soon but never does.  Meanwhile, Alan is lured to the possibility of something more around the corner, spending some choice time with a lusty Danish executive named Hanne (Knudsen, Borgen), and some flirtatious encounters with Dr. Zahra Hakem (Choudhury, Mockingjay Part 2), who is treating him for a growing cyst on his back, a symbol of the woes he carries around that continue to fester, further increasing his escalating anxiety.

Tykwer's an eclectic filmmaker, and the only thing you might be able to guarantee from film to film is that he's going to go places he's never been before.  Something this works well, sometimes it doesn't, but it's always interesting to see him continue to grow as a filmmaker, even though he's a veteran.  A Hologram for the King is an offbeat comedy at its core, which may not quite fit with the expectations of Tom Hanks fans, who tend to be more mainstream cinema goers.  While the role is not anything completely new for one of Hollywood's most bankable actors, this is definitely more art-house in its scope than Hanks has made in a long while -- not as bizarre as, say, Joe vs. the Volcano, but definitely not something you'd expect at this point in his career.

As a comedy, it's more a film that lightly amuses than one that elicits audible chuckles, often pleasant to watch, even if many of the film's attempts at gags feel a bit trite, such as Alan's inability to sit in a chair without falling on his back.  However, Tykwer's ability to flesh out characterizations that often surprise is one of his strong suits, such that even what might seem like one-note characters end up having surprising nuance, which allows the film to gain a good deal of momentum as other facets in Alan's journey are drawn out. 

The film also looks at globalization, not only of world economical markets that sees American industry pushing toward cheaper manufacturing in such places as China, but also of how outsourcing can backfire for brand names once associated with good and unique products once they are mass produced and used as the models for a variety of different companies that are even cheaper.  That's not to suggest that finding the world a smaller place is a bad thing, as the film also shows that, even though cultures may be wildly different, there are common bonds of love and friendship that transcend ethnic and religious divides.  In a way, Alan can be seem as representative of the United States as a whole, an isolationist entity that once thrived successfully in industry, then started relying on outsourcing to stay competitive, eventually losing that initial edge, overwhelmed by mounting debt and internal malaise.  The answer to finding contentment in this new scenario is to stop dwelling on thinking the best days are behind us, and to build on the situation as it currently exists in the new globally diverse environment.

A Hologram for the King is a film without any high highs or any low lows, which would normally make for a middling effort if not for the presence of Tom Hanks, some nice work by the supporting cast, and the ability of Tykwer to find new wrinkles in a tale that could have settled for the safety of the cliché.  At 97 minutes, it's not especially long or taxing, and its ultimate message of being able to shake up life's ruts by going outside of your comfort zone is one that is delivered with a subtle poignancy underneath the more broad strokes of its sense of humor.  While the path to personal redemption lies within ourselves, sometimes it takes a change of external surroundings to draw this out of us.

Qwipster's rating:

©2016 Vince Leo