Tom Hanks not enough in wobbly film adaptation
You can tell a lot about a movie’s quality, and a director’s instincts, by the way a protagonist falls off a chair. In the wobbly film version of the Dave Eggers novel “A Hologram for the King,” Tom Hanks plays an American businessman at odds with the furniture, the business customs and the cultural mores of Saudi Arabia. His character, a struggling former Schwinn executive named Alan Clay, has come to Jeddah and to the nearby construction project known as King Abdullah Economic City to pitch the king on a sophisticated new holographic teleconferencing IT system.
Nothing goes according to plan. The king and his associates are always somewhere else, never where Alan needs them. The delays force Alan to deal with his thoughts and to reflect on his recent divorce, his college-age daughter and his own glad-handing approach to life. Also he has developed a strange humplike growth in the middle of his back, eventually tended to by a recently separated Saudi doctor.
In various ways, Eggers’ deft, plaintive 2012 novel was made for the movies. It’s full of witty dialogue, and (this part is trickier) it’s a story in the long, checkered literary and cinematic tradition of the white, middle-aged male American boggled by lands and situations previously unknown to him. There’s a sad socioeconomic core to “A Hologram for the King,” in that Alan is both agent and victim of ruthless global business practices.
Adapted and directed by Tom Tykwer, the movie downplays everything in favor of the budding ro- MPAA rating: R (for some sexuality/nudity, language and brief drug use) Running time: 1:37 Opens: Friday mance between Alan and Dr. Hakem, played by the excellent Sarita Choudhury, best known to U.S. audiences for her work on the TV series “Homeland.” Getting there, however, isn’t much fun. About those pratfalls: True to Eggers, Tykwer’s script mines Alan’s situation for different varieties of fishout-of-water humor. But something’s off in the early scenes — indeed, in most of the first half of the picture. The tone and rhythms are pushy, forced, strained, like the expression on Hanks’ face. What should be casual punctuation, filmed in medium shot, ends up in bam-pow close-ups. The key relationship between Alan and his wiseacre, Americanized Saudi driver (played by Houston-born Alexander Black) comes off as second-rate situation comedy, without the come- dy.
Tykwer co-directed the nutty mosaic “Cloud Atlas,” the obsessively lavish “Perfume” and, earlier, the kinetic “Run Lola Run.” He’s not quite right for this assignment. The material needed more of a deadpan sensibility a la Bill Forsyth and “Local Hero,” and less overt filmmaking pizazz. Hanks does all he can. Individual moments and reactions (his “zowie!” nonverbal response to the local forbidden liquor, for example) remind us that he’s awfully good.
When the story focuses on the tentative romance, Hanks and Choudhury finesse it honestly and well. But “A Hologram for the King,” shot in Morocco, is so determined to make satisfying mainstream entertainment out of Alan’s internal and external crises, it ends up being more of a glad-hander than Alan himself. Michael Phillips is a Tribune Newspapers critic.
Tom Hanks stars in “A Hologram for the King,” directed by Tom Tykwer and based on Dave Eggers’ novel.