A washed up American businessman tries to start fresh in Saudi Arabia in “A Hologram for the King.” Compelling source material — a novel by David Eggers — joins with a terrific performance from Tom Hanks in this film that manages a nice scale; it brings elements of the universal, but also focuses on a single man and his problems.
“A Hologram for the King” conjures some of the fish out of water feeling of “Lost in Translation.” Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) retreats daily to his hotel, and the rest of his time is left profoundly adrift. His team, dispatched from a tech company in Boston to sell holographic communication equipment to a new city in the Middle East, is stuck in a huge black tent outside the modern office building they need to infiltrate, and he oversleeps every day, forcing him to seek the services of a friendly driver who becomes a friend. While this should be the deal of a lifetime, Alan’s sense of urgency is sporadic, and concerns with his ex-wife, their daughter, and his past filter through his workday.
It’s easy to call Tom Hanks an everyman, but that doesn’t really cover the extent of his appeal here. Alan Clay is certainly recognizable, but he’s also complex, and, rather than just an American confused by foreign cultures, Hank’s character is intelligent, curious and experienced, but also fallible and vulnerable. His daily struggle, waiting for “The King” in a hot tent while three employees and a distant boss count on him to deliver, is complicated by a mysterious growth on his back.
An attempt to excise his wound himself leads him to a beautiful female physician, and the two feel a kinship. Their relationship is a gently depicted thread running through the story and an unusually well-written one. It was unpredictable, refreshing, and real. The entire film was, in fact.
What I like about “A Hologram for the King” is how difficult I find it to describe and to categorize. It has business dealings that are interesting to watch, and a truly grown up romance, and it has a delightful friendship between Alan Clay and his driver. But it’s not exactly a feel-good movie either.
I can think of at least five different people I know with very different tastes and interests in films, and I would recommend it, for different reasons, to each of them. Tom Hanks, not so much likeable as watchable, is the main reason, but there are many more.
“A Hologram for the King” is currently available to rent.