Tom Hanks plays a globalized version of Willy Loman in “A Hologram for the King,” Tom Tykwer’s intriguing, if uneven, adaptation of the Dave Eggers novel.
Hanks brings all of his native, optimistic can-doism to his character, Alan Clay, an aging corporate executive working for a communications company in New England. Thanks to a chance encounter years ago with a nephew of the Saudi Arabian king, Alan’s been tasked with traveling to the kingdom to sell the government some interactive holographic conferencing technology. Jet-lagged, frequently hung over and perpetually out of his depth, Alan is true to his name: a man in the process of being formed, in this case by a world that’s changing around him with dizzying uncertainty, beauty and speed.
As Alan tries to navigate the opaque inner workings of Saudi politics and culture – the endless waiting for decision-makers who never appear, the polite non-answers to direct questions, the heat and food and confounding cultural contradictions – he’s grappling with an angry ex-wife back in the United States, as well as a mysterious knot that has appeared in the upper middle of his back. Meanwhile, he keeps missing the shuttle from his hotel to the desolate industrial park where his hologram presentation is supposed to take place any day now, putting him in cahoots with a genial driver named Yousef (Alexander Black), an American-educated bon vivant who reflexively disables his car in order to avoid being bombed.
Alan and Yousef’s friendship accounts for the least-satisfying plot line in “A Hologram For the King,” which boasts many – most of them clumsily metaphorical. But the viewer comes to see Saudi Arabia through Alan’s eyes: first as an exotic, forbidding geographical and cultural “Other,” eventually as a quasi-familiar embodiment of economic and social realities that are collapsing into each other faster and more dramatically than ever.
These encounters – some might call them collisions – can be violent or delightful, fraught with both danger and romance. Written and directed by Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”), “A Hologram for the King” conveys all of these possibilities with a combination of classical realism and bursts of surrealism.
Bringing his all-American persona with him, Hanks makes an appropriate foil for Alan’s own regrets, naivete and dawning sense of self-discovery, especially when he meets a quietly competent doctor played by Sarita Choudhury. His is the sentimental education of a new cosmopolitan, similar to that of Richard Jenkins’s character in the tender 2007 drama “The Visitor.”
As in that film, the hero’s journey in “A Hologram for the King” is mostly interior, and it’s ultimately gratifying. In one brief scene, signs for Starbucks and Kentucky Fried Chicken lie unused, either the portents of Western imperialism or the ruins of its decline.
“A Hologram for the King” leaves viewers with the sense that neither one matters as much as the attempt to adapt and connect. It’s that rare fish-out-of-water story in which the fish miraculously manages to stop needing water, and learns to crave air instead.