fri 23/08/2019

A Hologram for the King | reviews, news & interviews

A Hologram for the King

A Hologram for the King

Tom Hanks is the reason to see Dave Eggers's sentimental Saudi comedy

The same as he ever was? Tom Hanks in 'A Hologram for the King'

Tom Hanks is reaching world treasure status, like some third-century heritage site protected by UNESCO. His everyman allure makes him today’s only equivalent to James Stewart. Stewart shocked fans when he played a vengeful man-hunter in Winchester '73, and maybe it’s time Hanks defibrillated us all by playing a cold-blooded killer. In the meantime, here’s A Hologram for the King in which Hanks is very much Hanks and the main reason to pay up.

The source material is the much praised 2012 novel by Dave Eggers. Eggers, author of the super-ludic memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and creator of McSweeney’s magazine, is not the type of writer whose prose personality just leaps onto the screen. But in his wonderfully alive opening sequence (see clip overleaf) scriptwriter/director Tom Tykwer seems determined to lassoo lightning. To the backing of Talking Heads, Boston salaryman Alan Clay (Hanks) karaokes “Once in a Lifetime” in a harum-scarum nightmare sequence featuring cartoon SFX and a juddering rollercoastcam. In barely a minute it’s established that Alan, divorced and broke and with a horrible ex-wife, is heading to Saudi Arabia to secure a deal to supply the tech for a new city in the desert. For him it’s an alcohol-free last-chance saloon to pay for his daughter to go back to college. “I need you strong and bright here, Alan,” his boss tells him.What he finds in the Middle East is a different way of doing business. His junior colleagues (who have never heard of Lawrence of Arabia) prepping the presentation to the king are set up in a tent with no wi-fi, while over the way in the shiny office everyone lies to him about the whereabouts of the people he’s scheduled to meet. Day follows upon day, and each morning he lethargically sleeps through his alarm and has to be driven out to the desert development by Yousef (Alexander Black, pictured above with Hanks), a calamitous cab driver who nonetheless slowly inducts Alan in Saudi ways. They take an illicit trip into Mecca, and spend a night in the desert hunting wolves - though Alan's crisis of masculinity means that he'd prefer not to pull the trigger.

While Alan makes no professional headway, he is troubled by a lump in his back which is only worsened by emergency self-surgery and contraband moonshine. He ends up in hospital where he encounters an enigmatic and sultry female doctor called Zahra (Sarita Choudhury, pictured below).While Tykwer’s dancing narrative style includes savvy nods to Groundhog Day, A Hologram for the King doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It briefly reports on the hellish conditions suffered by Filipino guest workers and flirts with the difficulty of being a woman in a phallocratic society. But is it in fact an intercultural romance and plea for international understanding, or a soft-centred picaresque adventure about second chances in midlife? It's also that extreme rarity, a Saudi comedy whisked into a shrewd commentary on US impotence as globalisation steals American jobs.

And yet it’s not quite any of the above. Tykwer, who made his name with Run, Lola, Run, has taken on unmanageable novels before in the shape of Cloud Atlas and Perfume. This visit to the Middle East is never quite as flawed as Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, whose quirky charms shrivelled up on screen. DoP Alexander Berner has a fine time pointing his camera at the desert. But it feels like a missed opportunity. Attending a Danish embassy rave, Alan meets Sidse Babett Knudsen’s expat worker (a mostly pointless cameo for Borgen’s statsminister) who attempts to rip his kecks off. “Would you like to hear a really good joke?” he suggests as an alternative to sex. A Hologram to the King seems to know only quite good ones. What’s left is the pleasure of Hanks, the same as he ever was, in an inconsequential shaggy dog tale. 



Bridge of Spies. Spielberg's warm-hearted Cold War thriller is lit up by Tom Hanks (pictured below) and Mark Rylance

Captain Phillips. Piracy drama prompts bravura all-action display from director Paul Greengrass and captain Hanks

Cloud Atlas. Star company assumes various guises as David Mitchell's time-travelling masterpiece is lovingly told in under three hours

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Oscar-nominated adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel is lacking in magic

Saving Mr Banks. Emma Thompson as PL Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney track the journey of Mary Poppins from page to screen

Sully: Miracle On The Hudson. Eastwood and Hanks are the right men for an epic of understated heroism

Toy Story 3. To infinity and no further: Woody and the gang (sob) go on their final mission


Inferno. In Dan Brown's dumbed-down Florence, Tom Hanks saves the world. But not the movie


Overleaf: watch the opening sequence of A Hologram to the King

A Hologram for the King doesn’t quite know what it wants to be


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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James Stewart ? Once upon a time in the west. Try Henry Fonda.

Well spotted, Tony C, and thanks. As you will see from the edit I was guilty of fusing two good guys from the golden age. Road to Perdition a while back now. About time Hanks scared himself (and his audience) again.

Also you may want to watch road to perdition at some point.

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