Last year, Bill Murray and Barry Levinson collaborated on the bafflingly bad Middle East “comedy,” Rock the Kasbah. Already in 2016, we’ve seen the fitfully entertaining Whiskey Tango Foxtrot continue the tradition of ill-advised Middle East buffoonery. Now, national treasure Tom Hanks plunges into this growing subgenre with the puzzling A Hologram for the King. Though it never approaches the calamitous depths of Kasbah, writer-director Tom Tykwer’s film is still bad. Real bad. In fact, the only thing that saves A Hologram for the King from reaching disaster status is the luminous presence of Sarita Choudhury.
When Tom Hanks takes the screen performing a rambling rendition of “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads, you may ask yourself, “What the hell is this?!?” Sadly, things only get worse after this jarringly surreal opening.
Alan Clay (Hanks) is a failed American businessman on a quest for redemption in Saudi Arabia. A former executive at Schwinn Bicycles, Clay made the fateful decision to outsource their manufacturing operation to China; a move that basically destroyed the company. Now, he’s come to Saudi Arabia to sell the King on a cutting-edge holographic program that allows virtual interaction between clients separated by great distances. The utility of such a program remains dubious, though it would certainly curtail napping during business meetings.
Anyway, Clay travels to the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade (or KMET) in hopes of becoming the sole proprietor for their IT needs. KMET is basically a patch of sand littered with backhoes, bulldozers, and dreams of exorbitantly-priced real estate. Clay’s presentation team is treated like an afterthought; stuck in a tent with no food, limited Wi-Fi, and unreliable air-conditioning. He meets several colorful locals, including a driver named Yousef (Alexander Black), an extremely friendly Danish businesswoman (Sidse Babett Knudsen), and a beguiling female Saudi doctor named Zahra (Choudhury). Oh, and Clay has a cyst on his back that’s the size of Texas. Bonus!
A Hologram for the King is based on the novel by Dave Eggers, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2012. Clearly, something got lost in translation to the screen. Namely, writer-director Tom Tykwer (Cloud Atlas, Run Lola Run) fails to recognize the heart of his story until it’s too late.
The first 75 minutes of the film consist of Tom Hanks running around with his “driver, guide, hero,” Yousef. Not surprisingly, Yousef is yet another Middle East character portrayed by an American actor (See: Every damn film that takes place in the Middle East). They exchange relationship advice, violate local customs, and even hunt for wolves in the desert. It’s difficult to fathom the existence of these pointless scenes. They aren’t funny. They aren’t poignant. They aren’t interesting. Unless, of course, you find Tom Hanks falling out of chairs, stumbling around the desert, or mutilating himself with cutlery to be interesting.
A funny thing happens late into A Hologram for the King, however. A heartfelt story emerges from all the nonsense. Clay starts a relationship with the Saudi doctor, Zahra, and it’s absolutely delightful. Their interactions are delicate and guarded, with an emotional vulnerability that makes you yearn for their connection. You feel their uneasiness as they sit in the backseat of a car like two nervous teenagers, occasionally glancing at the rearview mirror to gauge the driver’s interest. When they go for a “carefree” swim in the sea, Zahra must go topless so potential onlookers will mistakenly think she’s a man. It’s a fragile romance between two people who harbor few allusions, especially given their age and station in life. You would gladly spend two hours watching their relationship blossom, falter, re-kindle, etc.
It’s a shame the filmmakers were more interested in belaboring some tired themes about finding an oasis in the desert rather than exploring something real and compelling. The herky-jerky editing doesn’t help matters, as no amount of splashy chopping can hide how little is actually happening here. The soundtrack, too, is overbearing as it pounds you into emotional submission. This is the type of uninspired score that throws a random Electric Light Orchestra song into the mix just to inject a little non-existent irony.
Hanks proves, once again, that even great actors can’t overcome a tragic script. His performance is often stilted and unsure, particularly in a first act that forces each character to spew large chunks of awkward expository dialogue. Black fares somewhat better as the broadly drawn Yousef, but there’s no escaping the offensiveness of the casting choice. Are actors of Middle East descent not capable of fulfilling ‘wacky sidekick’ duties? Only the luminous performance from Choudhury stands out. Her quiet dignity is almost deafening as she bravely searches for some shred of happiness within her restrictive social role.
Perhaps it’s a little unfair to malign A Hologram for the King so savagely. It seems to mean well, and director Tykwer makes a good-looking film. Hanks is always likeable, even when he’s been cast adrift by a lackluster script, and Sarita Choudhury is tremendous in her small role. Still, there’s no denying what an unmitigated mess this film truly is. The pain is made even more pronounced by a brief mirage of humanity in the third act. No matter how slick it tries to be, A Hologram for the King is a nightmare for the audience.