‘A Hologram for the King’ Review: Tom Hanks Is Another Sad White Guy
What do you get when you cross Death of a Salesman with Eat Pray Love? The latest Tom Hanks movie, a dramedy about a middle-aged sad white guy.
There are a lot of movies about sad white people. So what makes Tom Tykwer’s A Hologram for the King, which premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, different? It places its saddie on the coast of Saudi Arabia, where he dwells on his failures, seeks answers, and learns about himself. In the film adapted from the Dave Eggers novel of the same name, Hanks is Alan Clay, a burnt out American salesman traveling to Jeddah to sell a 3D holographic meeting system to the King.
While the title suggests the business venture will be the focus of the film, it’s only the impetuous for Alan’s self-exploration. His upcoming sales pitch to the royal government gets pushed to the background as complications arise – the King isn’t in town, his advisor is unavailable and Alan’s team can’t get any Wi-Fi (an actual ongoing plot point). The titular hologram is explained in a few short lines, while the actual demonstration gets only a few moments of screentime (unfortunately, so does Ben Whishaw). Instead of telling a story about a hologram or a king, Tykwer prefers to watch his protagonist stew in melancholy.
Alan is American depression incarnate. “You may find yourself without a beautiful house, without a beautiful wife,” Alan says to the camera as pink smoke poofs away a house, an enraged wife, and an SUV. “And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” They may be lines from a Talking Heads song, but they’re also what plagues Alan’s psyche. A series of panic attacks reveal flashbacks to Alan’s recession-era home life where his former job forced him to lay off factory workers, and rendered him unable to pay his daughter’s college tuition.
These anxieties help make Alan a tangible figure who American families could identify with, and a character who’s aptly cast as and whole-heartedly played by Hanks. Tykwer, who previously worked with Hanks on Cloud Atlas, brings out the actor’s warm earnestness, a quality that brings a semi-hopeful charm to his modern Willy Loman. He’s a man in decline, and to an extent Hanks makes him watchable. But this pathos soon turns sour as the film reveals its true agenda: Exploiting the exoticism of the location to save its drowning protagonist.
Surrounded in moody darkness, Alan finds a light, and that light just so happens to be a beautiful Muslim woman. Sarita Choudhury’s Zahra becomes Alan’s doctor in Saudi Arabia, but their doctor-patient dynamic eventually evolves into one of friendship and then, unsurprisingly, romance. Zahra is placed in A Hologram for the King as nothing more than a romantic interest, a savior of sorts to show Alan that happiness does indeed exist. That would be fine if the film took the time to fashion any sense of depth out of Zahra, whose entire characterization is summed up by her description in the film’s press notes: “beautiful” and “empathetic.” The film hints at an opportunity to explore Zahra and her life as a female doctor living in Saudi Arabia, but instead treats her like a object. Zahra is simply an entry point to a newer, more hopeful future for Alan.
Like Zahra, the film’s other crucial Muslim character also exists as an usher for Alan’s recovery. Alan befriends his goofball cab driver Yousef (Alexander Black), who introduces him to Saudi Arabian cuisine, sneaks him into the holy city of Mecca, and takes him hunting in the desert. Yousef is the film’s corny comic relief, and little more than a cardboard cutout of a man; beyond failing to create convincing Muslim characters, A Hologram for the King puts little effort into bringing the culture of Saudi Arabia to the screen. The film was denied permission to shoot in Saudi Arabia; its Moroccan and Egyptian locations do the film no favors in the authenticity department. Alan’s surroundings feel like a Hollywood backdrop, a distant majestic foreign land crafted only for the white protagonist’s escape.
If anything could’ve saved Hologram, or at least distracted from its mediocre and exploitative disappointments, it was the eye of Tykwer, a director known for his visual flourish. His crime drama Run Lola Run reimagined the same story three ways, mixing animation with live-action, his Perfume: The Story of a Murderer was unforgettably stunning and grotesque, and his work on Cloud Atlas further detailed his talent for mesmerizing eye candy. Yet Hologram finds Tykwer at his most mundane, employing a style as uninspired as the depressed Alan. Using only the opening sequence, a few dizzying flashbacks, and the short hologram display to flex his creative muscle, what results is a largely dull movie with specks of interesting visuals that feel out of place.
There’s a sense that the movie he wanted to make never made it to the screen. Or perhaps Tykwer’s just taking a break from what he does best. Regardless, let’s hope the sad white tourist is nearing retirement. There are better stories to be told.