'A Hologram for the King': Tribeca Review

At its best, an affecting fusion of midlife crisis and globalization blues.

Tom Hanks stars as an American businessman far from home in Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of a novel by Dave Eggers.

Taking the fish-out-of-water scenario to engagingly symbolic extremes, A Hologram for the King places an American business consultant in the middle of the Saudi desert. In that borderline-surreal setting, construction of a visionary megalopolis might or might not be a priority, and a U.S. company’s audience with the kingdom’s leader, in hope of securing an IT contract for the new city, might or might not be on the immediate calendar.

Though it isn’t without its awkward missteps, the movie generally finds Tom Tykwer back in form after the muddled mess of Cloud Atlas. Adapting Dave Eggers’ still-timely 2012 novel, the writer-director wisely accentuates the allegorical story’s absurdist slant. He translates the clear-cut prose into strong visuals, while the perfectly cast Tom Hanks delivers a poignant turn as a man facing his own obsolescence.

For the most part, Tykwer avoids the kind of culture-clash cuteness that has poisoned many recent Westerner-abroad movies set in Africa, Asia or the Middle East. Not all of his choices work, though, and some diminish the story — particularly his insistence on shoehorning an elegiac tale into a template of uplifting redemption. But the clever fusion of middle-age angst and globalization blues will click with mature audiences when the film hits theaters after its Tribeca premiere.

The movie gets off to a bright, bitter start with a fantasy sequence set to Talking Heads’ anti-ode to middle-class angst, “Once in a Lifetime,” and Hanks’ down-on-his luck Alan Clay wondering “How did I get here?” “Here” being divorced, broke and heading to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to oversee a presentation of a whiz-bang teleconferencing system. The pitch is make-or-break for Alan, who got the consulting gig not for his skills but because of a vague social connection to the royal family. Pained over not being able to pay his daughter’s college tuition, he sees his potential commission for the deal as life-saving. At the same time, he sees the job as his penance for letting her down.

Hanks creates a man who’s one slip from freefall, desperately holding on in increasingly ludicrous circumstances. His old-school salesman’s bravado — “What’s your name? Where are you from?” — doesn’t quite fly in the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade (KMET), a fictionalized version of King Abdullah Economic City. The partly built dream project rises fitfully from the blank desert like a cross between a construction site and a mirage.

With his “primary contact” as perpetually elusive as the globetrotting king himself, Alan finds himself in Godot-like circumstances. For the team of three bleary-eyed millennials he’s supposed to be leading, he has no answers and no authority. They languish day after day in an enormous tent where Wi-Fi is iffy and setting up their high-tech presentation is a challenge, just steps away from a fully functioning, air-conditioned office building.

A friendly Danish payroll contractor (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who’s closer to Alan’s age has no answers either, but she gives him a bottle of illicit booze, as well as making overtures that he’s not willing or able to reciprocate. Alan ascribes his lack of vigor, both general and sexual, to a large growth on his back — an obvious but effective metaphor in this story of symbols. Whether or not the bump is draining him of purpose and strength, it leads him to Zahra Hakem (Sarita Choudhury), a sympathetic doctor who’s also an independent Saudi woman. Their deepening involvement accounts for some of the movie’s least plausible moments, not because of the performances but because of the mounting coincidences that Tykwer imposes on them.

But Dr. Hakem is credible as an exception to the country’s stringent rules, a description that could apply to nearly everyone Alan encounters. That includes a character who at first veers dangerously close to cliché: Yousef, the young driver who gets Alan from his hotel to the remote work site. However unsatisfying the subplot, Yousef (Alexander Black, a standup comedian making his feature debut) has his own complicating quandaries to sort out. He’s not just one of those “colorful” locals who exist solely to help the Western protagonist, and the two actors’ restraint works to build a believable rapport.

The focus on the way individuals adapt to and defy custom is one of the smartest aspects of the film. Rather than pumping up an us-vs.-them setup, Hologram zeros in on Alan’s existential dislocation — profound jetlag coupled with midlife crisis.

Toward that end, Tykwer and his team of regular collaborators use the striking setting to potent effect. Cinematographer Frank Griebe’s widescreen compositions emphasize the desert’s empty stretches and its unlikely vertical intrusions (the international production was shot mostly in Morocco). From luminous Vivaldi to the percussive foreboding of compositions by Johnny Klimek and the director, the musical shifts suit the visuals.

In an especially vivid sequence, beautifully rendered by Griebe and production designer Uli Hanisch, Alan wanders around a partially built section of KMET like a figure dropped into a De Chirico painting. Climbing the dusty stairs of a high-rise construction site, he comes across a group of exploited foreign workers, a Hieronymus Bosch vision of hell that recalls Yousef’s comment, “We don’t have unions; we have Filipinos.” (Like many of the screenplay’s best lines, it’s taken straight from the novel.)

With so much right about the film’s present-tense drama, it’s unfortunate that Tykwer keeps interrupting with repetitive bits of backstory and fumbled flashbacks. Alan’s relationship with his daughter (Tracey Fairaway) never acquires the intended emotional urgency. Marginally more successful, if overstated, are references to his role in the downfall of an all-American manufacturer after outsourcing its workforce — something his father (Tom Skerritt) won’t forgive him for. Alan Clay is a man who once knew how to sell tangible goods and is now hawking “virtual encountering on a global scale” — cue the hologram, and Ben Whishaw’s cameo.

When it isn’t trying too hard to be instructive or jokey, Tykwer’s film fluently conveys the hard truth of diminished relevance, geopolitical as well as personal. Hanks’ portrayal of a man caught between utter defeat and a yearning to begin again is pitch-perfect, from his physical bearing as a walking, talking pinched nerve to such throwaway details as Alan’s mispronunciation of “Kierkegaard.” Alan Clay may have never taken a philosophy class, but he’s looked directly into the abyss.

Distributors: Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions, Saban Films
Production companies: Playtone, X Filme Creative Pool, Primeridian
Cast: Tom Hanks, Alexander Black, Sarita Choudhury, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Tom Skerritt, Tracey Fairaway, Ben Whishaw
Director-screenwriter: Tom Tykwer, based on the novel by Dave Eggers
Producers: Uwe Schott, Stefan Arndt, Arcadiy Golubovich, Tim O’Hair, Gary Goetzman
Executive producers: Steven Shareshian, Gaston Pavlovich, Claudia Bluemhuber, Irene Gall, Gero Bauknecht, Jim Seibel, Bill Johnson, Shervin Pishevar
Director of photography: Frank Griebe
Production designer: Uli Hanisch
Costume designer: Pierre-Yves Gayraud
Editor: Alexander Berner
Composers: Johnny Klimek, Tom Tykwer
Casting: Michelle Guish, Gaby Kester, Avy Kaufman

Rated R, 98 minutes