It’s pretty widely known that the name Tom Hanks usually puts people’s butts in seats at the movie theater. The five time nominated and two time Oscar winner is an audience darling and, even if he releases an absolute dud, like his self-directed Larry Crowne or the critically hated but loved by yours truly, The Ladykillers; both earned more than double his budget and left the actor unshaken in his leading man dominance. Let’s just face it, we love Tom Hanks and that isn’t changing anytime soon, though I will say that his new film A Hologram for the King will once again throw some people a bit. Hanks is reaching outside his usual fare with a filmmaker who is anything but conventional.
Tom Tykwer has always been and always will be a director with a large sense of ambition and is very obviously a storyteller who operates in his own stylish circle. 1998’s Run Lola Run put him and star Franka Potente on the international map, establishing Tykwer as an incredibly ferocious filmmaker with an ever evolving style that continued onto his next film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer in 2006. This would be his English language debut, a fine film that was critically panned, but would pair him with Ben Whishaw, an actor who would feature in his next endeavour, a project with an ambition that had never been seen before, the collaboration with The Wachowskis for Cloud Atlas. The film became very polarizing with great arguments on either side but the constant truth is that Tom Tykwer was a director that demanded attention.
So, because of this, I was quite excited to check out A Hologram for a King. The film follows Alan Clay, played by Hanks, a business salesmen who is sent to Saudi Arabia to pitch a major tech device from the IT company he works for to a king who Clay made a connection with through a chance meeting through his nephew. The tech is a new communications equipment that makes Skype or internet chat programs appear as a fully three dimensional hologram image. Just from the description alone, a man in the position of the king would snap this amazing technology up but, unfortunately, things go exactly in the reverse to what was planned.
With delays, miscommunications and misinformation throwing constant roadblocks in Clay’s way, the proposed short business trip begins to turn into a far extended stay in Saudi Arabia, as no one knows when the king will arrive for the presentation. The team is hobbled with a bad Wi-Fi connection, no catered food and a shoddy air conditioner. Adding to the increasing problems Clay faces in his professional life in a foreign land, he is also experiencing an existential crisis, spurned by a bad divorce and a shameful ending to his previous job. Alan Clay has lost his mojo and it doesn’t look like it’s coming back any time soon.
Stylistically and in vision, Tykwer nails A Hologram for the King, making it a very stimulating film to take in. When the movie starts, we get a fourth wall-breaking bit from Alan Clay to the iconic lyrics of the Talking Heads Once In A Lifetime. The whole spiel of “this is not my lovely house” et cetera, et cetera, ending with Clay on a rollercoaster fading into black and white as he retreats “same as it ever was” over and over plays as a great set up to the film, honing in on what is to be the theme of the story, his search for not only meaning in his life but existential stability. We, as the audience, are hoping for tone stability, which as the movie moves on, becomes increasingly distant before it’s completely gone in the third act.
There’s a constant recurring joke throughout the film of Alan Clay going to sit down on a chair or seat and it giving way on him and sending him sprawling to the ground. This is a great metaphor to explain the trajectory the audience is put on with the tone of this film as it feels like every time we figure what the direction of this film is supposed to be, everything collapses and we’re left to try and re-acclimate to what is happening again. Then, just before the third act, the focus shifts from Alan Clay’s inner turmoil to a romance that you can telegraph, even if it really is against your will. It feels like a direction argument in the writers’ room about where this story is going, which is baffling because the film is based on a book.
Where the movie does manage to succeed is the way in which Alan Clay’s outsider status is depicted as well as the repetition his trip seems to devolve into. He constantly sleeps past his alarm and is driven in to work by Yousef, a local who is a sort of slacker with lady problems. He is greeted ever day by the unenthusiastic hotel staff with the same words and his work is always in the exact stagnancy it was in the day previous. The editing and Tykwer’s meticulous direction makes these pieces work very well and keeps you fully engaged with the film.
Really, if it wasn’t for the uninspired and horribly easy ending to A Hologram for the King, I would most likely be far more on board with this film than I was at the conclusion. There’s something about a story of reinvigoration that really gels with me and Tom Tykwer almost had my complete confidence until it collapsed, not under the weight of his leading man but a story that only had a limited capacity for compelling storytelling. This is easily the worst work he’s produced and I didn’t care for Cloud Atlas, so, for me, that’s speaking volumes. I also think this film will lose a lot of Hanks’ fans and will lead to a lot of head scratching as to why it was even adapted. I give this a two and a half out of five.