An existential death of a salesman
A Hologram for the King fails to overcome its own identity crisis
I would watch Tom Hanks in anything — yes, even Larry Crowne — but after a screening of A Hologram for the King I walked out uncertain as to what it was I’d seen. The story, adapted by director Tom Tykwer (Cloud Atlas, also with Hanks), from Dave Eggers’ 2012 novel, seems simple enough. Washed-up salesman Alan Clay (Hanks), travels to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to pitch the king on teleconferencing technology. His foot in the door — more of a toenail, really — is that he once glancingly met the man’s nephew.
His experience is anything but smooth. Dragged down by a case of jet lag that threatens to turn terminal, Alan is constantly late for work — which isn’t the end of the world, because his Saudi business contacts don’t bother to show up at all.
But it also IS the end of the world. Set in the middle of the Arabian Desert, The King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade is a city of the future, which means it hasn’t been built yet. A lone guard waves Alan past a gate where a lone bulldozer operator digs desultorily in the sand. Alan’s American colleagues toil in a tent without catering, air conditioning or ( gasp!) Wi-Fi.
Alan remains resolutely upbeat, smiling and asking everyone he meets — the hotel concierge, his driver, you name it — for their name and place of origin. (This is a boon to the film critic; I can now tell you that Maha, the receptionist with a degree in brush-off-ology, is played by Amira El Sayed. I wish more movies worked this way.)
But cracks appear in Alan’s facade as the days go by with no progress and no sign of the king. His boss back home is getting increasingly frustrated with his nothing-to-reports. Meanwhile, he also discovers a nasty lump on his back and visits a local doctor (Sarita Choudhury), telling her: “I’ve lost direction and strength.”
Sounds like an acute case of existential-itis, brought on by foreign climes and exacerbated by culture shock; you’ll recall that Bill Murray suffered from it in Lost in Translation (2003). Mind you, he was in Japan, whose human-rights record is decidedly cleaner than Saudi Arabia’s, and where you can score a bottle of whisky without risking arrest.
Not that either of these things bother Alan. Everyone he meets speaks flawless English and is unfailingly polite, albeit in the twisted, apt-to-disappear style of characters in a Lewis Carroll novel. Most of them also have access to alcohol. (Hey, it is an Arabic word.) Tops in both categories is Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a Danish executive eager to foster, um, international relations.
Alan can’t quite close that deal either, in part because he is distracted by regrets in the form of dreams, memories and hallucinations — Tykwer is clever enough to not always let on as to which is which. Alan bonds with his driver, Yousef (Alexander Black), who explains his excellent diction and knowledge of pop music as being the result of time spent at university in Alabama. Like so much in this film, it’s plausible but a bit too pat.
Oddly, the least plausible and yet most enjoyable moments of A Hologram for the King are its first, in which Alan performs a cover of Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime. It’s an inspired bit of lunacy perfectly in keeping with the central character’s combination of optimism and angst. The film never quite hits that note again, but it never stops trying.