There are a lot of things going right with A Hologram for the King, Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of Dave Eggers’ novel of the same name, in terms of its story moves, its sweetness, and its constant desire to surprise us. So why did it leave me feeling a little cold? The film is strong when it reckons with the challenges and hauntings of a life lived, but a little glib in moving its protagonist beyond all those troubles. At 90 minutes, the film feels long where it should be short, and short where it should be long.
Director: Tom Tykwer
Producers: Stefan Arndt, Gary Goetzman, Arcadiy Golubovich, Tim O'Hair, Uwe Schott
Writers: Tom Tykwer, Dave Eggers (novel)
Cinematographer: Frank Griebe
Editor: Alexander Berner
Music: Johnny Klimek, Tom Tykwer
Cast: Tom Hanks, Alexander Black, Sarita Choudhury
Countries: UK / France / Germany / USA
US Theatrical Release: April 22, 2016
Premiere: April 20, 2016 – Tribeca
US Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Don’t get it twisted: there is some real art in this movie. Its premise is familiar without feeling redundant: it involves an American businessman abroad, Alan Clay, who is trying to prepare his staff for an important sales presentation to the king of Saudi Arabia, only to find that the Wi-Fi doesn’t work, the AC has broken, and there’s no way to get food. To make matters worse, his designated contact in the country is nowhere to be found, accessible only through an inscrutable, evasive secretary. In a striking image, Alan screws on a smile in a backwards tracking shot as he walks up to his team for the first time. It’s about a half-step away from body horror, with palpable tension building as he approaches his destination, but the shot culminates in nothing scarier than an apparently sincere smile. He sells his team—and, indeed, the audience—on an eventual positive outcome, even though we know he’s deeply anxious.
One poignant, strange aspect of the movie is the casting of an actor to play a younger Alan Clay (Lewis Rainer). Everybody knows what Tom Hanks looked like in Big and Splash, and it comes as a (very) mild shock that Hanks can’t put a bunch of makeup on and pass as young anymore. The film is interested in drawing contrasts between childhood and adulthood that end up exposing the similarities between the two—the ways in which one can feel, all at once, as helpless (or as uncomplicatedly happy) as a child. The pleasure of one scene using Rainer, which is not really a flashback, but a kind of imagined moment that Alan uses as a metaphor to explain a feeling he has to himself, is almost worth the price of admission on its own. If there is one thing this film is smartest about, it’s this: that one is the same person as an adult that they were as a child, only with more memories of the past and more responsibilities in the present.
For this reason, recollections of an adult Alan Clay’s earlier business career are also affecting—namely, a recurring memory of Alan having to lay off an entire plant of workers after his company outsourced their jobs. These could feel rote, but Hologram executes them in a way that plays as naturalistic, instead of like lazy screenwriting; the flashbacks are brief, lasting only for the space of an image, and are evoked through visual cues that arrive during scenes already suffused with emotion. Anybody with a couple of regrets in their history can understand the way an unfortunate memory stabs its way into the present before retreating. The movie—and Alan Clay—both seem aware that he is the beneficiary of massive amounts of privilege, and that he hasn’t always made the right decisions. Whether the film lets him off too easily is a question worth asking, but this is very much a film about a man trying to make sense of his past during an adverse present, and these intrusions of regret are, for a large part, Hologram’s stock-in-trade.
Would that they were more prevalent. A shocking amount of the film’s runtime is devoted to a subplot with a “wise-cracking taxi driver” (the press release’s language) who is badly underwritten and overacted (Andrew Black). There are also about three different montages in the first act whose sole purpose is to show how tired and burned out Alan Clay is, this is probably about two too many. Meanwhile, Alan's relationship with his young adult daughter and ex-wife is under-dramatized, and feels unforgivably black and white. His daughter is with him no matter what, even though he can’t help her pay for college; his ex-wife is a shrew. Family finances are a boring topic for a film, but Hologram never settles whether Alan actually deserves his daughter’s unwavering support or of his ex-wife’s scorn. A better film might have spent time exploring that, instead of lingering in a beat-up Buick with a painfully unfunny American actor playing an Arab.
The worst scene in the film further helps illustrate how out of whack some of the storytelling choices in the movie are. In this scene, Alan is brought accidentally to Mecca, where non-Muslims are prohibited. His driver has made a wrong turn, but reassures Alan that if he dresses as a Muslim, it won’t cause trouble. A conflict between story logic and cultural respect arises when Alan looks at the Sacred Mosque and the camera follows his gaze. When the driver asks him not to look, the camera guiltily shrinks back to Alan's hands, his feet, his lap, and medium close-ups of his face. The film is aware of what we might call the Western gaze—which means that bringing a large non-Muslim audience into Mecca seems like a questionable storytelling decision which the film has made anyways, to no apparent gain. A foreigner being somewhere they are not supposed to be is rich thematic territory, but only if it’s examined. An entire movie can certainly take that kind of thing on; a single scene, on the other hand, can only evoke it, and it might not be able to do so without being complicit in the first offense. In no way is this material central to the plot of Hologram, and it adds an uncomfortable twinge to the whole narrative.
When artistic license comes into tension with cultural respect, artistic judgment is needed. And let’s say that although the movie, on the whole, doesn’t feel deeply problematic, its artistic judgment doesn’t always seem fully thought-through. The end of the film offers a similar mixed bag of narrative decisions. It is a genuine relief when Alan’s sales presentation actually happens, and goes well to boot. It helps that the presentation is an impressive experience for the audience, and not just the King, who more or less has to be impressed for the purposes of the script. The resolution of a romantic narrative thread is less satisfying; Alan’s love interest is a native Saudi Arabian woman named Zahra (Sarita Choudhury) who says things like, “we are separated by the thinnest filament.” You are not given the sense that Alan and Zahra are going to end up together for life, but that they are two people capable of a rare understanding of each other. There is an affecting dramatized recollection of Alan’s childhood at the end, which is reminiscent (if you can possibly believe it) of the monologue that closes No Country for Old Men, and is followed by Alan and Zahra skinny dipping in a beautifully photographed reef. Ultimately, the film’s ending feels like a standard-issue male fantasy (topless snorkeling!) with some concessions to middlebrow narrative expectations.
A Hologram for the King is an uncomfortable mix of genuinely strange, good ideas and too-easily accepted commonplace ones. The film only runs about 90 minutes, but it drags in places, irritates in others, and leaves crucial questions unexamined. It knows some things about the trials of adulthood, but in the end shrinks from a thorough reckoning in favor of something ambiguously sugar-sweet. Hologram feels like a sincere work of mainstream art, and its interest in the problems of maturity is commendable, but its content seems a little smarter than its form.