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A Hologram for the King

D: Tom Tykwer / 98m

Cast: Tom Hanks, Alexander Black, Sarita Choudhury, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Tracey Fairaway, Jane Perry, Tom Skerritt, Ben Whishaw, David Menkin, Christy Meyer, Megan Maczko, Eric Meyers, Khalid Laith

Early on in A Hologram for the King – and after a wonderfully staged, and ironic, interpretation of Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime – Tom Hanks’ character, Alan Clay, is sitting across a desk from his boss, Eric Randall (Meyers). They’re talking about a deal to be made in Saudi Arabia, and about Clay’s ability to clinch the deal. Randall is making it clear that Clay has to make the deal, while Clay is being equivocal (and not exactly inspiring his boss with confidence). It’s also clear that this is a very important deal for their company, and that Clay has to clinch it or his career – which is already suffering thanks to his recent divorce – will be over. All of which begs the question: if you have potentially the biggest, most important deal in your company’s history about to happen, would you really put it in the hands of a man whose life seems to be falling apart around him?

It’s a question this adaptation of the novel by Dave Eggers never quite manages to address, let alone answer, and it’s indicative of the problems with the movie as a whole. Clay’s mission – to deliver a contract-winning presentation to the King of Saudi Arabia on the merits of holographic telecommunications – should be a simple one, but right from the start nothing seems to be going according to plan. Jet lag means he misses the hotel shuttle to the site where the presentation will be conducted, and has to avail himself of the services of a driver, Yousef (Black). At the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade, Clay finds his small team (Menkin, Meyer, Maczko) sequestered in a tent away from the main building where all the other companies making presentations are based, and without benefit of consistent wi-fi, air conditioning or food. And no one knows when the King will actually be visiting the site for the presentation to be made.

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Unable to make any headway against the seemingly carefree approach to business that the Saudis appear to be indulging in, Clay finds his health deteriorating. A large growth appears on his back; when he attempts to “investigate” it with a heated steak knife he’s not entirely successful in his efforts. This leads to his visiting a clinic and being seen by a female doctor, Zahra (Choudhury). She reassures him that the growth is a cyst and should be removed. Meanwhile, a combination of persistent delays, angry phone calls from Randall, and memories of his time with Schwinn and a deal he was involved in that went badly wrong, conspire to bring on an anxiety attack. When he wakes he finds Zahra at his bedside, and the beginning of an unlikely relationship is forged.

As unlikely this relationship is – and Yousef points out just how unlikely it is given that there are so few female doctors in Saudi Arabia – it’s as unlikely as any other relationship Clay has. From the adversarial conversation with Randall at the movie’s start, to the spiteful divorce-signing barbs of his ex-wife (Perry), and his e-mail based discourses with his daughter, Kit (Fairaway), Clay is always struggling to connect with the people either closest to him, or those he’s dependent on. Ordinarily this would be scope for an ironic commentary on the nature of modern communications and the way in which traditional methods are being usurped and/or replaced. But A Hologram for the King pitches itself firmly as a fish-out-of-water tale (or camel-out-of-the-desert tale, if you will), and in doing so avoids doing anything fresh or surprising. Even his relationship with Yousef, the source of much of the movie’s humour, is dependent on a connection that feels forced into place by the demands of the script.

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Watching the movie you begin to wonder how it was that Dave Eggers’ source novel managed to be a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. In the hands of writer/director Tom Tykwer, the movie stutters and flails about trying to make itself relevant in any way possible, and succeeds only in wasting the viewer’s time. There’s such a lack of clarity and focus that scenes pass without making any impact – even when Clay probes the growth on his back it’s handled in such a matter of fact way he might as well be probing a potato on a plate. Tykwer mishandles so many scenes in this way that after a while the viewer has no choice but to just go along with the jumbled narrative and hope for the best. Add an abbreviated ending to everything that hints at production problems, and you have a movie that disappoints on too many levels to count.

Against the odds though, it’s not all bad. Hanks is too accomplished and intelligent an actor to allow a ragged script to get the better of him, and while Tykwer’s direction is erratic and lacks consistency from scene to scene, the actor at least makes Clay a sympathetic (if somewhat bewildered) everyman, and has the viewer hoping that despite all the chaos around him, he’ll come good in the end. In the hands of (probably) any other actor, Clay wouldn’t have been as rounded as he is here, and certainly despite the laissez-faire nature of Tykwer’s approach to the character. And Choudhury, an actress who, like Hanks, rarely if ever puts in a bad performance, is on equally fine form as a kindred spirit of Clay’s who provides him with a degree of stability he can’t find otherwise.

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Filmed largely in Morocco, the desert locations are given a lustrous sheen by Tykwer’s DoP of choice, Frank Griebe, and there are plenty of diverting compositions to take the heat off the wayward narrative, not least the beautifully shot underwater scenes that appear towards the end. And again, despite Tykwer’s involvement, the movie has a natural, organic rhythm courtesy of underrated editor Alexander Berner (he’s one of the few people able to come away from Jupiter Ascending (2015) with their reputation intact).

Rating: 4/10 – muddled and frustrating, A Hologram for the King never engages with its intended audience, and gets by thanks to the efforts of Hanks and Choudhury; Tykwer has talent but with two disappointing literary adaptations in a row now, perhaps it’s time he turned his attention to more original material.