Movie Review: A Hologram for the King

Tom Hanks fails to deliver the goods in a generic romance set in exotic location

A Hologram for the King
Directed by Tom Tykwer
With Tom Hanks, Alexander Black, Sarita Choudhury, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ben Whishaw, Tom Skerritt

The name Tom Hanks generally serves as a guarantee that a film will be at least moderately entertaining. He stumbles a bit, though, in A Hologram for the King, where he plays Alan Clay, an IT salesman sent to try to seal a big deal in Saudi Arabia. Nothing there is as he expected it. His IT team is stuck in a tent in the desert with no WiFi. The city he was hoping to provide services to in reality does not exist yet. His official contact is nowhere to be found. It is not very promising for his IT team, or for a romantic film plot.

Fish-out-of-water plots usually create some comedy out of cultural misunderstandings, but the jokes just don't pan out, and too much is just painfully obvious. Even the name of the protagonist is a bit of a cliché — clay, as in something that is crumbling apart.

One running gag is that Alan Clay can never wake up in time to catch the shuttle bus to the would-be King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade (KMET). He has to hire a car and driver, as he cannot rent a car with just a US driver's license. The driver, Yousef (Alexander Black) provides what little humor there is. He has a rather rundown car and likes to listen to old American rock bands like Chicago. At the same time he tries to draw Clay into the local culture by taking him to cheap eateries and playing some Middle Eastern pop. Of course, there is some sort of road trip containing a bit of misadventure and misunderstanding, but not enough. Screenwriter director Tom Tykwer plays it too safe, never pushing the potential humor as far as it should.

There is also some talk in the film about the problems of US companies shipping jobs overseas and what that mean for society. The script barely scratches the surface of the idea, perhaps in an effort not to be overly political.

There is also an unlikely love story, which again is bland and predictable. Clay has a giant lump on his back, and for some reason waits until he is in Saudi Arabia to have it examined. His doctor, of course, is a Saudi woman. The rest of that plotline writes itself with no surprises. Actress Sarita Choudhury, who appeared in Mississippi Masala (1990) and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 and Part 2 (2014, '15) plays the doctor named Zahra. The issue of women's rights is Saudi Arabia is given a bit of a nod, but just barely. It is another missed opportunity to breathe some life into the film.

A highlight of the film, at least if one believes the title, is supposed to be the presentation of the new online hologram technology to the king. But anyone who saw Star Wars in 1977 has seen this before. It is the same as hologram image of Princess Leia carried around by R2D2. In real life it would be impressive, but on film it is a decades old trick of superimposing a see-through image.

Films with international romances often serve as travelogues showing exotic locales, but much of the film was not actually shot in Saudi Arabia. There is a running gag of Clay being greeted by hotel staff in the lobby, which one supposes is meant to be funny for some reason. There are a few views out of windows, but the rest is fairly generic scenes of desert roads and a few streets that could be anywhere in the Middle East.

The film isn't bad so much as it just bland, the sort of uninspired romance one would expect to find on cable TV late at night, and that one watches simply out being too lazy to change the channel. The cast tries hard and the film looks professional, but there is no heart to it.

What is rather astonishing is that writer / director Tom Tykwer is known for complex films. Run Lola Run (1998) was a big international hit that explored the same event several times. Heaven (2002) was based on a script by art film maker Krzysztof Kieślowski. The International (2009) was decent enough thriller. He was one of the directors of Cloud Atlas (2012), a film that sank under the weight of its artsiness and complexity. A Hologram for the King shows none of the director's previous traits.

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