A Hologram for the King

David Gritten / 26 May 2016

Saga film critic David Gritten reviews A Hologram for the King, starring Tom Hanks as a fraught American businessman abroad.

Based on the novel by the estimable Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King is a film that might have been written with Tom Hanks in mind. Its central character is one Alan Clay, a decent American businessman down on his luck – broke, recently divorced and clearly depressed. He’s also a fish out of water, having been ordered by his company to travel to Saudi Arabia and sell an innovative tele-conferencing system, featuring an eye-popping use of holograms, to the Saudi government.

When it comes to portraying such a character, nobody does it better than Hanks. He seems a little bemused, somewhat innocent, and his eyes carry discreet signs of panic, common to many Americans who find themselves in lands where life is lived differently.

In dramatic terms, Clay’s situation could easily be the trigger for a total breakdown. But the film plays his story for gentle comedy, with romantic overtones.

His sense of isolation is so extreme it verges on parody. He finds himself in the grandly-named “King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade,” which turns out to be a half-finished ghost town, littered with empty skyscrapers, miles from anywhere in the desert. At the misleadingly named “Welcome Centre,” he is bemused by the bureaucracy; local big-wigs he arranged to meet here are simply absent, being out of town for days. Will the King himself show up, as hoped? It rarely seems likely.

Yet German writer-director Tom Tykwer has turned this potentially downbeat material into a comedy suffused with gentle romance. Clay never quite gets used to Saudi ways, but decides to make the best of his situation, at which point things start looking up.

Some of the comic material seems forced – Clay falls in with Yousef, a local taxi driver (American actor Alexander Black) who is chatty, compulsively jokey, and ultimately rather irritating. He meets a winning Danish expat, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen (who played the prime minister in Borgen); but their promising relationship goes precisely nowhere. Apart from anything else, this is a waste of a great actress. But when Clay’s stress descends into illness, he is treated by another attractive woman, a Muslim doctor named Zahra, played by Sarita Choudhury. They hit it off rather better.

This all feels somewhat unstructured, with the quality of a shaggy dog story. As for its comedic elements, I’m not at all sure Saudi life is quite as jolly as it’s portrayed here; and the culmination of the central courtship feels wildly implausible, in this of all countries.

Still, the film is an amiable piece of work, with a charm that outweighs its structural faults. And Hanks (in Jimmy Stewart mode) holds things together effortlessly; his Clay, while buffeted by life, is someone you want to like. And you end up doing just that.

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