Tom Hanks is a stranger in a strange land in this adaptation of Dave Eggers’s bestselling novel from writer/director Tom Tykwer (Cloud Atlas).
Even if you do gradually warm to his character, don’t expect to feel the same way about the place he finds himself in. Saudi Arabia is the setting and in some ways the villain of the piece, not unlike the way Tokyo came across in Lost in Translation, but with crucial differences: the only bright lights in the desert are the sun and stars, and, given the climate, the portrayal feels surprisingly cold. Oh, and Lost in Translation was much funnier.
But is it supposed to be a comedy, or a drama? The tone of the film shifts like the Arabian sands.
In the throes of a midlife crisis, Hanks’s can-do American businessman Alan Clay finds his resolve weakened by the capricious nature of the Saudi royals who have invited him to pitch for a contract supplying IT systems for a new mini-city.
He doesn’t get much “face-time” with the prince or the king, instead his team is relegated to a big black tent a stone’s throw from the air-conditioned paradise of development HQ where they sweat it out in hope of reward. Alan’s discomfort is emphasised by the many chairs he sits on and breaks, providing a bit of jarring slapstick.
Alan also has a comedy sidekick in the shape of newcomer Alexander Black (hand-picked for the role by Hanks), who plays taxi driver Yousef. The mock ethnic accent might raise a chuckle, along with his fear of turning the key in the ignition (he’s wary of being bombed – not by terrorists, but by a jealous husband). However, such running jokes soon get old and the pair’s relationship doesn’t develop in any meaningful way to enlighten Alan – or the rest of us – about the local culture.
The point about Alan is that he’s disconnected, and judging by emails to his daughter, it’s the same whether he’s home or away. Fine, but those gaps of understanding aren’t properly bridged.
Inevitably, Clay gets the urge to reach out and touch someone. And that falls to his husky-voiced doctor Zahra (Sarita Choudhury), but she only lays her hands on him to examine a big lump on his back. (That’s a metaphor-alert for the emotional baggage that is weighing Alan down.) She stays aloof for the most part and it’s left to Yousef to state the obvious: Saudi women do not go out for cocktails and kissy-face. This is never going to be your standard Hollywood love story.
There are stolen glances and eventually a few messages exchanged, but whatever Zahra is going through in her personal life isn’t for sharing, and the risks she is taking by indulging Alan’s need to talk are never made clear.
Tykwer creates a mood piece rather than a journey where the sense of alienation is heavy and, eventually, stifling. The film is weird without redemption; a story of love across borders without any peril and a fish-out-of-water comedy without any laughs. If the similarly themed Salmon Fishing in the Yemen gently waded through the waters of midlife angst, this is what happens when the river dries up.
Tom Hanks is always watchable and endearing but he is wandering around in futility looking for signs of life here. The hologram of the title refers to the company’s latest innovation in face-to-face communications and it could also describe Tykwer’s treatment of the source material, turning something of weight and substance into a mere light show.
A Hologram for the King is released in cinemas on Friday 20 May