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Hologram for the King a Bit Hollow

A Hologram for the King is a bit of a hologram for the audience. It’s impressive on first blush, but you soon realize it’s imagery with little substance.

So it goes for Tom Hanks’ dramedy, a film that’s stunningly shot, finely acted, but resting on a narrative that’s a bit of mirage.

Set in Saudi Arabia, King has Hanks as Alan Clay, an aging, frustrated salesman representing an IT firm trying to sell 3-D video teleconferencing technology to the monarch for a massive planned development: a city called the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade.

It’s a gleaming ghost town, where empty modern buildings outnumber residents, all surrounded by a vast wasteland (think Detroit as a new housing tract). And Hanks, a struggling 50-something, is under the gun to close the deal (think Glengarry Glen Ross goes to Kabul).

King starts with a moment of shock-and-awe. The movie’s best scene is its first: Alan strolling down a tidy suburban street improvising a version of the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” It’s ingenious backstory as Alan laments his life and career slide with a tweak to David Byrne’s lyrics (“You may find yourself without a beautiful wife. Without a beautiful house.”)

When he finally reaches the shimmering ghetto, Alan discovers the sales pitch won’t be what he expected. His tech team is sequestered in a nearby tent with sporadic wifi, spotty electricity service and air-conditioning that goes out as often as his employees’ patience. Meanwhile, tensions run high as the team questions whether the king will ever show up for Alan’s sale presentation.

King is notable if only for its oddness. Written and directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) the German filmmaker and composer is known for his offbeat takes on story. And King has many, particularly when we enter Clay’s subconscious in dreamlike flashbacks.

But setting comedies in the Middle East is tricky, given the region’s tenuous political and religious relations with the U.S. Just ask Billy Murray, tasked with providing the yucks in the mediocre Rock the Kasbah last year. Dramas usually make for better cinema in a Mideast backdrop, as underscored by the terrific Eye in the Sky earlier in 2016.

Like Kasbah, King can’t decide what kind of film it is. Buddy comedy? Romantic adventure? Tense political thriller? There are characters who hint at all three: A wiseacre taxi driver Yousef (Alexander Black); a beautiful Saudi nurse Zahra (Sarita Choudhury); and a gaggle of mistrusting Saudi residents who question Alan’s motives.

Odder still are the touches Tykwer chooses uses for laugh: A lymphoma, an anxiety attack that mirrors a stroke and forced humor, as when Alan jokingly tells a Saudi stranger that he’s a freelancer for the CIA. Would any American tourist crack that wise to a man with a gun? The script’s rhythm also is odd. The love affair blossoms in the third act, not the first, and the movie’s finale seems to be wrapped up in epilogue.

But any Hanks movie is worth watching, if only for his performance. He’s terrific as a man whose life and career is in steep decline. Youseft’s take on America (including musical tastes that run from Elvis to the Electric Light Orchestra) provide the movie its primary laughs. And Choudhury is a wonderful choice as an aging woman caught between passion and her country’s traditions. The actors make the movie entertaining, despite the uneven script.

King feels a bit like a great music video to a middling song. It looks terrific, but after a while, it stops making sense.

(3 stars out of 5)