In his long and storied career, Tom Hanks has been a part of a variety of films, most of which come in the form of either mainstream comedy or drama. With his Playtone production house, his producing credits also deal in a variety of genres that play well to both large and niche audiences. But when you look at his resume, there are very few independent or unknown credits. And why would there be? His name alone is enough to draw even the non-movie goer to theaters, and his charm and personality hearken back to when actors were stars, not just box-office fodder or a brand name to stick on a film as an attempt to make some extra cash. But with A Hologram for the King, Hanks steps out of his comfort zone to try his hand at selling a film that will likely play well over seas, but where most people in the U.S. will likely never know existed.
Hanks stars as Alan, a down-on-his-luck salesman for a communications company that’s assigned to set-up a brand new holographic telecommunications system as part of the development of a brand new city in Saudi Arabia, mostly because he became fast friends with the Saudi king’s nephew. But no matter how much charm Alan spews to those he comes into contact with, things don’t go as smoothly as he initially planned. The progress on the city is far from where he expected it to be, his team is stuck working out of a hot, black tent with a weak wifi connection (the horror!; actually, there’s a good reason for why this is bad), and the meeting he’s supposed to have with his main contact (Khalid Laith) continually gets postponed. Each one of these dilemmas gives Hanks ample opportunity to showcase what he does best, delivering a terrific performance by mixing lightweight comedic elements with strong dramatic undertones.
Having only heard of the film (based on a novel by Dave Eggers) when I jumped on Fandango to see what else was playing alongside the powerhouse movie of the week, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The movie starts with a very odd pseudo music video, setting a rather light tone for Alan’s journey, even as it attempts to deal with elements such as depression and a mid-life crisis. It’s not a new concept (Tina Fey explored similar territory earlier this year with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot), but with Hanks driving the narrative, even the most mundane, routine aspects of his “new life” feel more serene and thoughtful. As he goes about each day — greeted robotically by the concierge, shower, sleep-in, shower, brush teeth, work, greeting, shower, bed — he grows comfortable but feels totally out of place at the same time. He feels trapped by an angry ex-wife and has no clue what to say to his daughter (Tracey Fairaway), who isn’t quite sure about her own future. He’s so used to getting his way, selling himself and developing a strong rapport with with those he meets, that when he loses control, it all culminates into a drop in energy and panic attacks.
It turns out, the overall reason for Alan trekking out to Saudi Arabia isn’t about the job at all. It’s very much about his personal goals and acceptance that things have to change. On the surface, the hologram of the title is the telecommunications network Alan is selling, but as the movie progresses, it becomes so much more than that. The hologram becomes a metaphor for Alan himself — over the last few years, Alan has become nothing more than a hollow image of his former self. The trip to a foreign country helps him understand this alteration, giving him reason to seek out the change he needs to find himself once again.
It’s too bad the script lacks the power that Hanks deserves, tiptoeing past the sensibilities and political correctness associated with culture shock and religion. One of the more delightful characters that Alan meets on his trip is Yousef (Alexander Black), a sort of Saudi Uber driver Alan hires when he accidentally misses his shuttle out to the job site. Yousef is quite funny and adds a special comedic maturity that matches Hanks, helping the duo become like brothers — so much so that when Yousef brings Alan along on a quick weekend vacation to his family’s home, he accidentally takes the Muslim-only road through the holy land of Mecca instead of the safer, non-Muslim road. This idea is ripe for exploration, but with the exception of Hanks’s beautiful work hiding his insecurities, anxieties and fear surrounding the mistake, the whole idea is wasted, failing to grip you in any substantial way.
Writer-director Tom Tykwer also fails to capture any magic in the relationships Alan forms with two possible love interests. The first is Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a Dutch ambassador that pushes Alan to illegally drink, party and have sex in a coat closet. She’s aggressive and pushy, exploiting Alan’s weaknesses for her own needs. On the other end is Zahra (Sarita Choudhury), a female doctor he meets when he goes to have a lump on his back checked. The relationship they build is more respectful and kind, each one seeing something special in the other, a kindness toward the others culture and feelings that neither, it seems, has seen in a while. The problem is, except in the way it helps support the overall theme of the film, neither relationship truly connects the way it should. It just goes to heighten the rest of the weaknesses the film has, including a third-act that rushes to the finish line, keeping us from connecting to the end of Alan’s journey. Had Tykwer dug a little deeper in his explorations and found a couple of actresses that had more electric checmistry with Hanks, the film may have been a little known gem in a sea of mega blockbusters. As it stands, the film is a light, comfortable jaunt that’s neither here nor there, and will most likely be remembered as one of Hanks’s more forgettable affairs.
My Grade: B+
Next week, new movies include Mother’s Day, Ratchet & Clank and Keanu. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.