A Hologram for the King
Directed by Tom Tykwer
Opens April 22
A Hologram for the King arrives in theaters riding a wave of anti-hype, at least compared to how it might have been received back in the early 2000s. Imagine, circa the most recent turn of the century, the prospect of Tom Hanks starring in a movie directed by the guy who made Run Lola Run, based on a book by Dave Eggers: It would have come out in Oscar season and probably made startlingly close to $100 million, even if it was still about a relatively low-key three-quarter-life crisis.
Of course, back in 2000, Hanks wasn’t quite the right age yet to play Alan Clay, the salesman who gets a gig pushing an IT system on a king in Saudi Arabia. As the business trip starts to look more and more like a desert mirage—Saudi contacts keep ditching his meetings, keeping his team holed up in an air-conditioned tent with no wi-fi—Alan deals with a college-aged daughter who needs tuition money and a worrying growth on his back. In 2016, A Hologram for the King plays like Hanks taking a mulligan on his second (and woeful) directorial effort, Larry Crowne, which turns out to be not such a bad idea.
The film opens with a splashy dream sequence featuring Hanks singing “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads, only to quickly blow the escape hatch and curtail the weirdness. This prepared me for a more cautious, possibly bowdlerized Tykwer, and certainly A Hologram for the King is a gentler experience than some of his German films, or than Cloud Atlas, his previous collaboration with Hanks. But the rhythm of Alan’s unraveling in Saudi Arabia plays to Tykwer’s strengths, as does the decision to get Hanks overseas as soon as possible and fill in bits of backstory as it goes: sharp, whooshing cuts, not quite music-video kinetic but efficient and effective. Alan gets a buddy in the form of Yousef (Alexander Black), his freelance driver, and there are plenty of other characters in the movie. But it’s largely a Hanks solo show, even moreso than last year’s Bridge of Spies, and the beloved icon is in fine, unfussy form.
As Alan waits around for his new beginning, the movie’s approach to conflict is reflective and patient; the way the material avoids a real crisis point feels almost like an artsy play, moreso than a film or even a novel (the Eggers source material remains unread by me). It’s refreshing until the final stretch, when the movie turns into an abbreviated You’ve Got Mail and the accompanying optimism feels like the bum’s rush—like Tykwer is ejecting the audience, or maybe like the movie is tossing itself out. Did someone decide, after 90 minutes, that it was all obsolete anyway?