Review: 'A Hologram for the King'

Tom Hanks does his best Willy Loman in this Dave Eggers adaptation.
CLAY OF ARABIA: In 'A Hologram for the King,' Tom Hanks plays a businessman facing his own obsolescence in the desert.

The slightly off-kilter quality of A Hologram for the King is explained in the credits; it's international filmmaking that doesn't have a definite style or a center. Having avoided the candied nostalgia and thumpingly nationalistic conclusions of Dave Eggers' source bestseller, director Tom Tykwer transforms this story into a slightly abstract study of a middle-aged man's inexorable slide into obsolescence.

Stories like these—of American businessmen getting blindsided by new and unsympathetic markets—used to be all the rage. Second-hand bookstores were packed with knockoffs of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and Death of a Salesman. These tales, as tired as they may be, are greatly aided by the warmth and trustworthiness of Tom Hanks.

Tykwer pioneered hypertextual cinema with 1998's Run Lola Run; but here he keeps things straightforward, with few flashbacks or other gimmicks, with the exception of a cartoonish dream sequence in which Hanks' character, Alan Clay, acts out the lyrics of the Talking Heads' 'Once in a Lifetime.' Indeed, Clay lost his beautiful wife and his beautiful home. And he has no idea how he got there.

This slipping salesman was cleaned out by a rancorous divorce. Alan's daughter Kitty had to drop out of college because of the financial blowback. Alan's father (Tom Skerritt, in a horrendously written, one-scene part) likes to remind his son that Alan was the exec who engineered the Schwinn outsourcing and layoffs. In short, Alan was the man who helped China corner the international market in bicycles.

Appropriately, Clay is hoping to resurrect his career in Saudi Arabia, where he is tasked with staging a presentation meant for the king of that oil-rich nation. He secured this last-chance job by flexing a personal connection: at a party, he made one of the princes of Saudi Arabia laugh with a dumb joke.

Sleepless and anxiety-ridden, Alan flies to the desert kingdom. He is quickly whisked away to an economic development zone way out in the dunes, where he spends his days working in a black tent next to a Potemkin village of half-built skyscrapers and empty streets. Hologram's central symbol is a good one, especially tangy here in Silicon Valley. All the technology, energy, sales acumen and crucifying worry is centered on summoning an illusion—a holographic telecom system.

The project seems doomed. The King will show up when he feels like it. Alan knows so little of the Saudi culture that he tries to send out to room service at the Jeddah Hyatt for a cold beer. He doesn't realize that businesses in a Muslim country would be open on a Sunday, or that poor people in an iron-handed, U.S.-backed regime might be particularly sensitive to jokes about the CIA.

Clay's driver and sidekick, Yousef, makes the movie. Played by Alexander Black, an actor certainly destined for bigger projects, is about as Arab as Hanks. But he has a close resemblance to John Belushi and is immediately funny in every reaction shot. Hanks has never been that kind of funny as an actor. He's light-heartedly funny. He's wistful. One winces rather than laughs. Hungover from illicit moonshine, or recovering from a burst of panic in the middle of the night, Hanks looks as beat as he did under the white lights in his neglected film Joe Versus the Volcano. Frequently, Hologram plays like a good Mad Men episode, with Don Draper feeling his age and swallowing his moral corrosion in the name of a job and his family.

The other standout is Sarita Choudhury, the doctor Clay consults about a newly discovered tumor. Chowdhury was director Mira Nair's discovery in 1991's Mississippi Masala. Unaltered by facelifts, Choudhury has grown from a gorgeous if uncertain actress into a figure of maturity and eye-catching glamour. Her presence adds some relief to the anxiety. Choudhury make this movie less about Eggers' lamenting the way capital fled America without even a thank-you note, and more of a hot-weather vacation far away.

A Hologram for the King
R; 97 Mins.
Camera 12, San Jose

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