At some point in all our lives, I believe we ask ourselves the existential question: “How did I get here?” As the film, A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING, opens, we find Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) at that point in his life… literally. It’s 2010 and Alan is a modern-day Willy Loman or Shelley Levene. A middle-aged salesman for a telecommunications company, Alan has seen his life unravel in recent years. His wife has left him, he’s had to sell his house — no doubt at a bargain basement price thanks to the banking crisis — just to pay for his daughter’s education, and he moved his previous company to China and then watched as the Chinese priced them out of business virtually overnight. Globalization has not been kind to Alan. But now Alan is rolling the dice once more, this time hoping to sell an expensive, 3D holographic meeting system to the king of Saudi Arabia who is building a new city in the desert about an hour’s drive from Jeddah.
Alan, though, is woefully unprepared for what awaits him in the KSA, as it’s called. Things are done very differently in the Kingdom. When he oversleeps on his first morning there, he misses both his appointment with the king’s advisor and the hotel’s shuttle bus that would have taken him there. Instead, he’s stuck with Yousef (Alexander Black), an American-educated driver/tour guide/jack-of-all-trades who agrees to chauffeur him around in his beat up, vintage Chevy Caprice, provided it doesn’t blow up first. Arriving at the work site, Alan discovers that not only are his staff of three millennial programmers relegated to a hot tent that has no WiFi signal and no food, his Saudi contact is nowhere to be found and there’s no prospect of the man arriving at any time in the near future. To make matters worse, Alan discovers he has a rather ungainly cyst on his back. Is his run of bad luck related to this growth? Alan suspects that it is.
Seeing what’s left of his bleak future slipping away from him, Alan decides to take the bull by the horns. He eventually gets to present his company’s technology to the king and, along the way, he strikes up a relationship with the female Saudi doctor who tends to his cyst. In the end, Alan discovers that journeys are all about making choices, and it’s better if you’re the one making them rather than leaving them for others to make for you.
A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING is based on the 2012 best-selling novel by Dave Eggers. I wish I had read the book before I saw the movie (and I may still) because then I’d know if the book is better. It’s got to be. For starters, I couldn’t accept that Alan would be as ill-prepared for doing business in Saudi Arabia as he was. The man, after all, previously packed up a factory and shipped it to China. It couldn’t have been his first overseas business trip yet he behaves like it was. He doesn’t know that he can’t order a beer from room service (Saudi Arabia is a dry country), he’s somewhat surprised to see miles and miles of sand dunes, and he’s even wearing a tie. He’s also chronically jetlagged. Has he never heard of sleeping pills? If he had never been outside of Kansas, I could accept that he wouldn’t know what to expect in the KSA but he’s an experienced businessman. He should know.
Saudi Arabia and the Saudis themselves don’t fare much better on the stupidity scale. Alan is staying at possibly a 6-star hotel (the hotel chain’s counterpart in Hong Kong is 6-star), yet the staff don’t recognize Alan from one day to the next, his room clearly doesn’t include a minibar fridge, they evidently don’t offer a wake up service and instead of providing Alan with a proper driver and car, they give him Yousef. Granted Yousef is amusing and he shows Alan a side of the country that few visitors get to see, but the whole premise seems disingenuous. His blossoming relationship with Dr. Hakim (Sarita Choudhury, TV’s HOMELAND) seems equally suspect.
Then there’s the whole allegory of Alan selling ice to Eskimos with his company’s hologram technology that is supposed to impress us. German director and screenwriter Tom Tykwer (RUN, LOLA, RUN) bops us over the head with the notion that Saudi Arabia itself is one giant hologram so it only makes sense that the king would be interested in this technology too. It has the appearance of being a modern country but if you look closely at the image you’ll see that it’s hollow inside. Yeah, yeah, we get it. And we also get that Alan’s life has been exactly the same.
Fortunately, what saves this film from going up in a puff of purple smoke are the performances of Hanks and Black. (Choudhury lost my vote when she dropped her Saudi accent.) Hanks, it seems, can make delicious lemonade out of the cheapest of lemons, and this film is one cheap lemon. He imbues Alan with so much heart that we believe in him even when his actions say that we shouldn’t. Black, for his part, provides the film’s comic relief and he pulls it off, although many critics have already commented that Hollywood has continued its whitewashing ways with its casting of him as an Arab. (Strangely, no one has made the same comment about Choudhury.)
All in all, A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING, is a mildly average film. Maybe save it for the next time you’re on a business trip.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 30:00.)
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