'A Hologram for the King'
Tom Hanks sure does like an inspiring story. The closest thing we have to a contemporary Jimmy Stewart, Hanks has dedicated his career to playing nice guys doing nice things in nice tales that impart nice themes. ‘A Hologram for the King’ might be based on a Dave Eggers novel and adapted/directed by ‘Run Lola Run’ auteur Tom Tykwer, but it’s a Tom Hanks feel-good dramedy through and through.
There’s nothing wrong with that. As a matter of fact, Hanks has delivered some of the finest movies of the last few decades while marching down that seemingly single-minded track (with a handful of exceptions of course, just not many). Thematically, structurally, and at times even visually, ‘Hologram for the King’ feels like a modern day rendition of the vastly underrated ‘Joe Versus the Volcano’. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as good. The gently satirical and mildly fairy tale-esque first half of the movie works rather well, but when it gets time for the message to hit home, things fall flat, in spite of all the whirling camera moves, vibrant colors and striking images Tykwer throws at the screen trying to squeeze emotion out of viewers.
Hanks stars as Alan Clay, a middle-aged, middle class, and moderately successful businessman who gets sent off to Saudi Arabia to stage a very important international business deal involving hologram communications technology. As with most existential dramedies of this sort, Alan is also in a funk. Recently divorced, his work problems have prevented him from paying for his daughter’s college tuition, forcing her out of school. Given that Alan was always driven by work and family as his only means of weighing his worth, the guy doesn’t feel like he knows who he is anymore or why he even bothers with the game of life.
When he shows up in Saudia Arabia, things go from bad to worse. He’s shoved into a tent with a small team to plan a presentation, but they don’t have the WiFi necessary to do their job or the food necessary to live, and everyone they ask for help dodges questions. They have no clue when they’ll be able to present the technology to the king. To top it all off, Alan finds a giant growth on his back that can’t possibly be good. Some flirting advances from a co-worker helps lift the guy’s spirits, but even that doesn’t feel right.
Boy oh boy, ol’ Alan sure is in a funk – the type of thing that will require radical life shifts for correction. Thankfully, he’s in a vastly different culture perfect for such brands of growth, he has made a new friend in an eccentric local driver (Alexander Black, hilarious), and the doctor looking at his back is a lovely and strong woman (Sarita Choudhury). Maybe things could work out? Who knows?!
It’s not the most original style of story, even if the location wins points for novelty. However, for the first hour or so, the movie is rather fun. Twyker avoids easy sentimental setup by giving audiences only glimpses of scenes that explain how Hanks’ character ends up in such a tight spot. We don’t get big obvious speeches or melodramatic moments of forced personal tragedy, just flashes of images that suggest all we need to know without dwelling on the specifics. It works well as storytelling and also feeds into the subjective filmmaking the director employs to put the audience inside the character’s troubled head.
The culture-clash comedy also works surprisingly well, teasing at stereotypes without fully committing and whipping up frenzies of bad news sequences that feel tensely comedic. The director shoots in a heightened style to make every moment cinematic, but keeps a human core to avoid becoming too arch. Tom Hanks obviously helps immeasurably here, as he’s one of those movie stars with instant audience connection who can still retain an everyman quality. He leans into the light comedy while also showing pain beneath his weary eyes. For a while, it seems like ‘A Hologram for the King’ might be one of those rare sap-free, feel-good inspiration comedy/dramas… and then the wheels fall off the train while Tykwer pulls into the station.
Unfortunately, the last act of the film is a sentimental chore more to be endured than enjoyed. All the plotlines tidy themselves up far too neatly. Some are silently sent off to pasture in montage even if they seemed of central importance until that point. In particular, a salvation love story never gets enough room to breathe beneath the swell of romantic imagery. Sarita Choudhury is too strong of an actress to feel like a mere figure of salvation, but she and Hanks just don’t quite get the room they need to form what feels like an honest connection. Their performances are strong and Tykwer throws in every trick from his rambunctious directing playbook to force out emotion, but something doesn’t quite click.
The movie plays more like an expensive self-help seminar than an allegorical modern fairy tale and ultimately the whole thing feels underdeveloped. ‘A Hologram for the King’ is still rather entertaining for about an hour and features some fantastic work from Hanks and his supporting cast. It just doesn’t quite stick the landing. As a result, it blows the sweeping emotional payoff that it was building towards. It remains a charming little time-waster for an afternoon of thought-free streaming or airline travel, but given that it doesn’t quite hit the grand ambitions of the heart-on-their sleeves filmmakers, that’s not enough to qualify as success.