Adapted from David Eggers’ 2002 novel of the same name, A Hologram for the King sees Tom Hanks’ beleaguered America sales executive, Alan Clay, dispatched to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by an IT company to pitch for the communications contract at a new city being built in the middle of the desert. Alan has his own problems; he’s going through a nasty divorce and can’t afford to keep sending his daughter to college, he’s haunted by decisions he made which led to massive layoffs at his last job, and he has a weird growth on his back that might be cancerous. Still, he attacks his assignment with a typically American can-do attitude, only to be stymied by the highly ritualised customs of the Saudis.
Any film which starts with Tom Hanks on a roller coaster singing a Talking Heads song can’t be all bad, but A Hologram for the King is an odd beast. Watching it, you get the sense that a lot of what worked on the page simply doesn’t translate well to the screen; while the action of the plot is all there, the literary meat and metaphors that presumably filled in the gaps in Eggers’ novel are absent.
Of course, the opportunity to hang out with Tom Hanks for a couple of hours is never one to be balked at, and he brings his usual solid, amiable charm to the proceedings. Alan is a desperate guy who knows he’s pretty much on his last chance here, and he’s easy to sympathise with as he negotiates the unwritten rules of the country he’s found himself in. With his support time stuck in an extravagant but under-serviced tent (the lack of wifi alone threatens to sink their proposal), Alan struggles to get so much as a meeting with his assigned liaison, and nobody knows when the King, to whom Alan must make his presentation, will arrive. It’s all a bit Waiting for Godot, with our hero twiddling his thumbs in the desert for long stretches.
The film does drive home the incredible wealth of the Saudi government, though, along with the bizarre (at least to Western eyes) reverence with which the King and his retinue are treated. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia comes across as a culture where great importance is placed on appearance rather than actuality: huge cities are built as symbols of wealth and status, only to lie empty of tenants; the country is purportedly dry, but alcohol is consumed freely, disguised as olive oil. As a travelogue, the film is fascinating, despite the fact that it was not filmed in Saudi Arabia (Morocco and Egypt subbed in).
As an actual narrative, it’s not so great. The arc of Alan’s journey to self-actualisation is a shallow one, despite the presence of Tom Skerritt as his father-cum-guilty-conscience, and Sarita Choudhury as his love interest/beacon of hope, a female Saudi doctor who treats his abscess. When the credits finally roll, we don’t seem to be too far away from where we started. A Hologram for the King is a pleasant trip to an uninteresting destination, which is a damn shame – there’s a lot of talent in the mix, doing good work to little effect.