A Hologram For The King opens with an aggressive shout of a scene: Tom Hanks' protagonist, Alan Clay, charging through a white-picket-fence suburb, yelling the lyrics of Talking Heads' "Once In A Lifetime" into the camera. Behind him, the elements of his character's comfortable life — the "large automobile," "beautiful house," and "beautiful wife" of the song — disappear behind him, in clouds of violet smoke. It's meant to illustrate how rapidly Alan's life has disintegrated, turning a successful executive into a deflated, doubtful man. But it also feels like a preventative energy-drink shot delivered directly into the audience's cerebral cortex, in the hopes of keeping them awake for the next two hours. It's a startling way to begin a movie. It's an even more startling way to begin this movie, which is more about slow internal movements and long, unprofitable waits than about this level of manic, self-flagellating exaltation.
A Hologram For The King, adapted by director Tom Tykwer from Dave Eggers' 2012 novel, follows Alan to Saudi Arabia, where he's the lead salesman on a team hawking a new holographic telepresence system to the Saudi king. Alan's job is on the line, and he's under pressure to produce fast results. And that becomes impossible as he tries to navigate a business culture he doesn't understand and can't control. The king is traveling and none of his underlings can predict his movements; his representatives ghost on appointment after appointment. Alan and his team are left to sweat it out in the desert in a circus-sized tent full of unreliable air conditioners, waiting for a decent Wi-Fi signal and for a positive sign that they'll get to do their presentation at some point.
Saudi culture is portrayed as incomprehensible to the point of absurdity
There's a bit of Waiting For Godot-style existential angst in Alan's dilemma, as he waits for a call that may never come, from a person who comes to seem like a myth. Jet-lagged and still reeling from his divorce, his business failings, and the vicious judgments of his ex-wife and his father, Alan has lost most of his confidence. Hanks plays him as a man who mostly remembers how to put on a chipper salesman smile and project interest in the people he's talking to. But alone in his hotel room, Alan sucks down glass after glass of illegal booze, composes angst-stricken letters to the patient daughter he can't afford to put through college yet, and flashes back to the moment where he had to lay off 900 workers at his Schwinn plant. He's fighting to establish his new identity after losing his old one as a successful businessman, husband, home-owner, and father. He just has no idea what the new identity is.
Hologram unfortunately mixes up this soul-searching with a fish-out-of-water comedy that falls back on ungainly tropes about inscrutable foreigners. The film portrays Saudi culture as incomprehensible to the point of absurdity. Functionaries lie to Alan for no clear reason. He's presented with a barren desert dotted by a few idle workers, and told the king plans to build it into a thriving city of 1.5 million people within 10 years. He tours a dilapidated initial build site with a single luxury apartment, surrounded by sub-slum squalor. There's a constant tension on screen between wealth and poverty, intention and action, fantasy and reality, but Alan isn't mentally or emotionally equipped to process it. Left to gawp blankly at the gap between promises and fulfillment, he comes across as not just hapless, but useless.
A few local figures are on hand to fill in the blanks for him: His amiable driver Yousef (Alexander Black) is a handy cultural interpreter, albeit a lackadaisical and sometimes dangerously irresponsible one. Danish expat Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is less helpful, as she tries to haul Alan into the embassy party scene. Local doctor Zahra (Sarita Choudhury) is a beacon of reason, though more emotionally removed. And Alan initially treats them all as fixtures in his life rather than people. Part of that comes from Hanks' blunt, frustrated performance; his Alan is a man who takes everything at face value, while understanding none of it. But part of it is just Tykwer's script, which has Alan charging full-bore ahead into situations without examination.
And given how much Hologram is about his inner life, that surface approach proves frustrating, and makes the story's series of outsized incidents seem arbitrary and slapdash. Hologram doesn't make the same mistakes as the thematically similar recent Americans-in-the-Middle-East movies, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Rock The Kasbah. It recognizes that Alan's personal crisis is important to him, but not necessarily to the world at large. The world isn't there to help him process his confusion, it just adds to it, and keeps rolling merrily along. It's up to him to figure out what he wants. In that sense, it more closely resembles Ben Stiller's Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, another lumbering but sometimes sublime film about a man lost in his own thoughts, and wandering an indifferent world looking for answers.
The ending of A Hologram For The King feels nothing like the middle, let alone that wild beginning. There are at least three films mashed together here, and the latter two could use a lot more of the opening's creative spark — that unbeholden, outsized touch Tykwer brought to films like Run Lola Run, Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer, and Cloud Atlas. Tykwer normally has a strong personality and identity as a director, and there isn't nearly enough of it in this film. But he tends to work with protagonists with more personality and specificity, and less Everyman approachability. Here, with Hanks giving off his usual tense Midwestern charm, the story becomes more generic. Too often, this feels like a pleasantly anonymous drama about a man's late mid-life crisis happening in an unfamiliar place, but in a very familiar way.
But when Hologram moves away from ain't-foreigners-wacky humor and commits first to being a drama about confusion and commitment, and then a sweet, tentative romance, it does finally manage to land on something sublime. The place the story ends doesn't necessarily fit with where it began, which leaves Hologram feeling like a fractured and uncertain oddity. But at least by the end, it's a beautifully melancholy oddity. It's inconsistent in its intentions, but at least some of those intentions are good ones.