A Hologram For The King received relatively little publicity, and yet I suspect there are a number of factors that will draw a respectable crowd to the theatre to see it in the coming weeks. There’s the presence of Tom Hanks in the lead role, and the fact that it’s based on a Dave Eggers novel—both Hanks and Eggers have their faithful legions—and then there’s that curious title that draws you in. Essentially, the movie advertises itself.
Unfortunately, it’s for the same reasons it appeals that the movie ends up being a mild letdown. For those unfamiliar with the Eggers novel, this is the story of Alan Clay (Hanks), a businessman mired in a lulling career and life who travels to Saudi Arabia for what he hopes will be a major score. Clay works for an IT company seeking to provide advanced, hologram-based telecommunications for the king of Saudi Arabia as he builds a new city in the desert. However, faced with elusive and uncooperative officials in Saudi Arabia, Clay struggles for most of the film to make the deal. The struggle compounds Clay’s growing feeling of inadequacy, born of his struggles to pay his daughter’s tuition and his concern over a gigantic metaphor (erm, cyst) on his back.
The most curious thing about this movie is that the tale of a businessman traveling to an exotic land to equip a living king with hologram technology is somehow presented as something close to mundane. The first half of the movie simply meanders through a repetitive cycle of Clay being pressured to make a deal, steeling himself to do so, and being rebuffed by Saudi authorities. The point is made—this is a man growing increasingly used to disappointment—but it all but snuffs out the vague excitement promised in the title, and in the clean, no-nonsense prose of Eggers.
Things do pick up, almost entirely thanks to the relationships Clay makes on the side while his deal is stalled. One is with his adopted driver Yousef (Alexander Black), a comic figure who on multiple occasions helps Clay to look beyond his own problems and awaken his own livelier, better self. The other is with Zahra (Sarita Choudhury), a doctor who treats the cyst on his back and, in keeping with the most obvious symbolism you’ll see on the big screen this year, also unburdens him of stress. Through these two relationships, one a friendship and one a somewhat hasty romance, Clay is taken to different, beautiful corners of the country, and the movie becomes an appealing and optimistic visual experience, even as he begins to find himself.
In the end, A Hologram For The King’s pseudo-profundity doesn’t mean too much, nor does the movie entertain too consistently. That said, obligatory Hanks praise is merited. Fresh off a few heavyweight Oscar contenders like Captain Phillips and Bridge Of Spies in recent years, one gets the feeling that Hanks is simply looking to have fun with a project like this. And somehow, that’s just what he seems to do.
Hanks takes what really should be a dull and mostly lifeless role, and he turns it into an interesting one as only he could have done. The plot meanders, yes, but as usual Hanks’s every noise, expression, and surprising bit of humour delights. Devoted Hanks fans may want to see it for that reason, though more impartial moviegoers may prefer to stay away.
Image via Facebook