A Hologram for the King is mostly a disappointing failure.
There may be a way to make a successful film adaptation of Dave Eggers’ bestselling novel A Hologram for the King, but Tom Tykwer, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed, didn’t find it. It’s true that turning Eggers’ novel, which is short on characterization and plot and long on ambiguity and literary style, into a conventional movie (and despite a few surrealistic touches, this is a very conventional movie) would be a tough task for anyone. Still, it’s disappointing that Tykwer did not even try to capture the tone and spirit of the novel (which are what makes it interesting). Instead, he retained the basic structure of the plot and much of the dialogue, but turned a complex narrative into a conventional rom-com starring Tom Hanks as a guy who goes to the desert to get his mojo back.
Hanks plays Alan Clay, a middle-aged American businessman sent to Saudi Arabia to pitch a holographic telecommunications system to the King (hence the title). Clay gets off on the wrong foot on the first day by oversleeping and missing the company shuttle (he will miss many more). His lack of punctuality allows the introduction of a useful narrative device in the form of a hired driver, Yousef (Alexander Black, in an unfortunate example of brownface casting), who becomes the film’s most important supporting character.
When Clay arrives at the site where the holographic system is to be set up, it’s not a gleaming modern building but a tent in the desert that lacks internet service, food, and reliable AC. He addresses the three young co-workers on his team in his best gung-ho shtick (Alan started out as a salesman), but finds it more difficult to convince the Saudi employees to provide the services his team needs, or even give him a straight answer about anything. As time passes, Clay and his team start to wonder if the King will ever show up, or if he is just some Godot for which they will endlessly wait.
Flashbacks reveal Clay’s backstory: among other things, he played a key role convincing Schwinn to outsource production to China (big irony there—now he worries that he has become as useless as the factory workers laid off as a result of that decision), has a college-age daughter who adores him and an ex-wife whom he despises, is short of money and needs this venture to be a success, and has a boss who doesn’t think much of him. Clay also has a suspicious lump on his back that he not-so-secretly hopes will prove to be due to some medical condition that could explain his feelings of lethargy and general lack of interest in life.
In a nutshell: Clay is a middle-aged white guy in a suit who is used to success and doesn’t understand who pulled the rug out from under him. There’s nothing wrong with that premise, per se, but the challenge is to do something interesting with it. In this, A Hologram for the King fails abjectly. Willy Loman had a certain tarnished nobility, Larry Gopnik grandiose self-importance, Mel Edison comic absurdity, Max Bialystock cosmic chutzpah, and Michael Stone the novelty of being portrayed by a puppet. Alan Clay has none of those things, although his existential situation has much in common with that of the protagonists of, respectively, Death of a Salesman, A Serious Man, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, The Producers, and Anomalisa.
Clay is also something of an ugly American who got this assignment due to a whim of fate but has not bothered to do basic research on Saudi culture and customs: he doesn’t know that the weekend is Friday and Saturday, for instance, or that alcohol is banned in the Kingdom. He also thinks it’s funny to say to a Saudi he doesn’t know that he’s working for the CIA. While Tykwer may have meant for Clay’s ignorance to make him more likeable (because it’s something he has in common with many Americans), I think it just makes him more of a jerk.
Other aspects of the story have been modified to make Clay more likeable—for instance, giving him a real relationship with his daughter (in the book she’s a sort of abstraction to him, to whom he constantly writes letters he doesn’t send, and about whom he realizes, shades of Woody Allen, that he doesn’t even known the names of any of her friends). One pivotal incident is left out entirely—were it included, it would totally change your view of Clay’s character, and not for the better—and without it, the scenes of Yousef’s country home are pointless.
While A Hologram for the King is mostly a disappointing failure, one strong point is the cinematography by Frank Griebe, a longtime Tykwer collaborator, which makes good use of locations in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, as well as Boston and Germany. There are also some brilliant interior sequences, including a mind-bending party at the Danish embassy, which underline the sad fact that the storytelling in this film is not nearly the equal of its visuals. | Sarah Boslaugh