An inoffensive movie unless you think about it, A Hologram for the King begins with Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) on a flight to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. A former Schwinn bicycle executive who lost most of his money to the 2008 recession and an ugly divorce, he’s now a tech sales rep preparing to pitch holographic videoconferencing technology to the king himself. Alan’s job depends on his success, but nothing works the way it’s supposed to in the kingdom: His support team works out of a tent in the middle of the desert, local officials give him the runaround, and the monarch keeps failing to show up. To top it all off, there’s a worrying-looking growth on Alan’s upper back.
This is by Tom Tykwer, the German director whose vibrant, mesmerizing youthquake 1999 film Run Lola Run captured attention in America. That radical breakthrough has proven to be a false dawn, as his subsequent films in both German (The Princess and the Warrior) and English (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) have been empty exercises in pseudoprofundity. He adapts this from Dave Eggers’ novel, playing it mostly for deadpan comedy, as Alan tries to figure out the rules of this odd country while stuck in a holding pattern in a planned metropolis that’s only a few gleaming, modern buildings in an ocean of sand. Some glints of the old postmodern Tykwer style emerge, like in the opening dream sequence in which Alan recites the lyrics to the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” to the camera while his beautiful house and beautiful wife vaporize in puffs of smoke, but they don’t amount to anything. The filmmaker de-emphasizes the novel’s agonized musings about middle-aged failure in favor of a redemptive romance between Alan and the beautiful Saudi surgeon (Sarita Choudhury) who operates on his back.
Therein lies the problem: This movie comes out as a tourism ad for Saudi Arabia, as Alan rediscovers his sense of purpose in a condo by a pristine sea while selling real estate in the planned city. I’m sure the KSA is a lovely place for people with money, but its well-known repressive dark side is too easily waved away here, as when Alan’s voluble cabdriver (Alexander Black) cheerily says, “We don’t have unions here. We have Filipinos.” Alan runs across some ratty-looking South Asian guest workers living in squalor below a luxury apartment, and neither he nor the film thinks to ask about their lives. The doctor tells Alan, “We are separated by the thinnest of filaments.” Maybe so, but the movie ignores the real hardships faced by Saudi women who marry foreigners. Alan’s professional troubles in America are depicted as the inevitable product of globalization. I know that many people these days are disenchanted with American capitalism, and while I don’t know where the solution to its ills lies, I’m pretty sure the answer isn’t in a petroleum state that beheads political dissidents. A Hologram for the King is one of those visions of late-life contentment that evaporates in the desert air.
[box_info]A Hologram for the King
Starring Tom Hanks and Sarita Choudhury. Written and directed by Tom Tykwer, based on Dave Eggers’ novel. Rated R.[/box_info]