Tom Hanks is a bona fide movie star, but he’s gone just about his whole career playing the everyman—the unflashy, solid kind of guy that can be both the pillar of morality and the vessel for human suffering. He’s likable, funny, and charming, but can play distress and turmoil incredibly well. He’s the closest thing we have to a modern day Jimmy Stewart, and I don’t think we’re likely to have another any time soon. Because of all this, Tom Hanks is, I think, the only actor who could have grounded the often all-over-the-place story in Tom Tykwer‘s A Hologram for the King.
Based on the novel by Dave Eggers all about how America has lost the economic stronghold it once had, the movie deals with being lost in your middle-age and being unaware of your place in the world, both as a man and as an American abroad. It’s also about changing your own fate by accepting the new and being open to different ways of thinking. Also, it’s pretty funny at points.
Hanks plays Alan Clay, a former board member of Schwinn Bicycles who has had to take a sales job for an IT company after Schwinn is (by his own doing) shipped overseas and put out of business through cheap Chinese competition. He has been sent to Saudi Arabia to try to sell the nation’s king a holographic teleconferencing technology for his as-yet-unfinished business hub, only to find that the king is rarely even there. On top of this, Alan and his team have less than ideal conditions while they wait. He’s also dealing with an imploded marriage and a daughter who’s had to take a semester or two off from school when Alan can no longer pay for it.
As Alan struggles with jet-lag, he also has to deal with his own insecurities and anxieties, which manifest as a number of strange maladies, most noticeably a giant cyst on his back. While spending time in Saudi Arabia, he meets various people, including Yousef (Alexander Black), a young “limo” driver who used to study in Alabama and who is terrified that his married girlfriend’s husband is going to car bomb him; Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a Danish consultant working in the king’s industrial park; and Zahra (Sarita Choudhury), the doctor Alan sees about his back and with whom he shares an undeniable attraction despite their vastly different customs. All of them reinforce Alan’s dilemmas about life, love, and success as he works to solve them.
Tykwer, who also wrote the screenplay, delivers his usual frenetic pace to a lot of the scenes, especially the dream sequences and flashbacks, but he allows the landscape of Saudi Arabia—at once foreboding and gorgeous—to be still and serene. Alan’s life becomes a series of repeated actions, missed opportunities, and minor defeats. Some of the most interesting parts of the movie deal with him still acting like the U.S. can command all kinds of respect, but finding out that the Saudis and the Chinese really don’t need them anymore. He also sees the massive discrepancy between the wealth and opulence of the Saudis’ ruling class and the abject poverty of much of its citizens.
Ultimately, I really enjoyed A Hologram for the King, even if I don’t think it fully explored the themes it was putting forth. The book, I’ve been told, doesn’t necessarily fill the reader with much hope or catharsis, whereas the movie, clearly aiming for something different, does. Hanks is uniformly wonderful, but the rest of the mainly unknown cast is equally great. This feels like a real story about real people even if it begins with a commercial-like dream sequence set to “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads.
Image: Roadside Attractions
Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. Follow him on Twitter!