Ah, middle-aged white men—there truly is no personal issue so crushingly banal or microscopically inconsequential that they can’t tell a soggy, quasi-inspirational story about heroically overcoming it. Tom Hanks reunites with his Cloud Atlas co-director Tom Tykwer for the flimsy but watchable A Hologram for the King, adapted from a novel by Dave Eggers. Yet the scenario seems more suited to the worst impulses of Cameron Crowe than to the man who made Run Lola Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.
Hanks plays disgraced American businessman Alan Clay, who tries to find redemption in the unlikeliest of places: himself (cue AM rock staples). More concretely, Hanks’ IT salesman is trying to find personal and economic redemption in Saudi Arabia, where he has been sent to pitch the monarchy on a hologram conferencing system. That’s what the movie is about, I swear to God—Tom Hanks trying to find Wi-Fi in the desert.
Of course, Alan arrives in Saudi Arabia carrying a cargo load of emotional baggage—his ex-wife hates him (ugh, women); his father still blames him for a disastrous factory closing back home (ugh, old people); he can’t fathom the local customs (ugh, foreigners); he sports a scary lump at the base of his spine (ugh, the toxicity of our shallow Western culture); and he’s repeatedly stonewalled by his Saudi contact’s incompetent receptionist (ugh, the lower classes, and also, ugh, foreigners and women again).
The only positive thing in Alan’s life, and the only reason he’s willing to debase himself on the other side of the world, is his daughter Kit. Squeezed dry by the divorce, Alan needs money for Kit’s college education (“College is your thing!” screams his off-screen ex-wife), and so he endures the antiseptic hotel room and the ill-equipped office tent and the lack of legal alcohol. Cracks in his facade begin to show almost immediately, but the entire film is obviously traveling on a monorail toward messages about embracing the real and letting go of your shit, so just relax.
Along the route, Alan bonds with a colorful driver played by Alexander Black and romances Sidse Babett Knudsen’s Danish tech worker and Sarita Choudhury’s divorced Saudi doctor. Knudsen and Choudhury are fine actresses (Knudsen starred in The Duke of Burgundy), and in a just world, they would be headlining an action-comedy or crime drama together rather than playing the third and fifth bananas in this moist wisp.
And yet for all of the eye-rolling, arms-crossed ill will that the premise engenders, Tykwer squeezes in enough narrative conviction and visual verve to hold your interest. Hanks did his most truly transformative work of the last quarter-century in Cloud Atlas (so naturally it was laughed off the screen), but Alan Clay is more in the Hanks wheelhouse of affably brittle sad sacks. He can do this sort of crumpled decency in his sleep, but he gives his all to Alan Clay, a sure sign of his faith in some fairly shoddy material.