A Hologram for the King

Review by Henry Heffer @henryheffer

Directed by

Tom Tykwer

Starring

Alexander Black Sarita Choudhury Tom Hanks

Anticipation.

A successful book, taken to the screen by a talented director and a post-Bridge of Spies Tom Hanks.

Enjoyment.

There are full bodied moments of humour, with a compelling central relationship. But the conclusion lacks any real epiphany.

In Retrospect.

We leave the desert feeling parched.

Tom Hanks plays a genial hologram salesman(!) who packs off to Saudi Arabia for a voyage of personal discovery.

Like Mosses, Jesus or Matt Damon before him, Tom Hanks, as the disenchanted technology salesman Alan Clay, heads in to the desert in order to bring about a spiritual reawakening. In this adaptation of the Dave Eggers novel of the same name, director Tom Tykwer, who previously directed Hanks in the another literary adaptation, Cloud Atlas, presents Clay as an Odysseus-type figure. He navigates a sea of exotic Middle Eastern culture which distracts him from the job at hand: to present the same technology that brought the late Tupac back to the stage to the King of Saudi Arabia. But the King in inevitably delayed. So with the help of local taxi driver Yousef (Alexander Black), Clay to is forced to prolong his stay and potter around this strange land.

Clay is one of Hanks’ more composite characters. There is a bit of Joe Fox answering emails, a bit of Chuck Noland taking a knife to his own back and some of Viktor Narvorski, looking bewilderedly at a new culture through a window. But the latter performance thankfully doesn’t last long, because the wealth of English speaking, alcohol drinking characters he meets in Saudi Arabia makes sure that the most Clay hears of arabic and sees of the real Saudi Arabia is exactly the amount required to keep diplomatic relations bubbling along nicely.

There is only one telling reference to the reality of modern KSA: when shown the square where the public executions take place Clay exclaims “IN PUBLIC!” As if in Boston they have the good decency to take their executions indoors.

But if you are willing to accept this rose-tinted version of Saudi life, where infractions such as drinking alcohol that would usually lead to public lashes are instead winked about in a ‘boys will be boys’ fashion, there is adventure, humour and pathos to be witnessed. The most provocative moments are when Clay looks back with gained honesty to his failures to keep his first business afloat against stiff competition from the Chinese. There is only a small step needed to see this as a film about the problems facing the UK steel industry.

Hanks elegantly leads Clay around the dusty horizons trying to simplify the problem of his life through solving problems with his business. Yet, all he is really looking for is companionship. Which he finds in the form of the beautiful divorcee, Doctor Zahra (Sarita Choudhury). Her brazen attitude to life in the KSA captivates Clay, as you might expect from a half English, half Indian actress who played the Queen in Mira Nair’s Karma Sutra: A Tale of Love.

By the end, Clay’s journey to self discovery poses more questions then the film solves. And thanks to this ambiguity, the film ends up being more a tale of the modern man and not the KSA. A Walden-type parable for those men too successful, too responsible and too sexed-up to take to the woods alone, and have to settle for the desert instead.

Published 17 May 2016

Tags: Dave Eggers Tom Hanks Tom Tykwer

Anticipation.

A successful book, taken to the screen by a talented director and a post-Bridge of Spies Tom Hanks.

Enjoyment.

There are full bodied moments of humour, with a compelling central relationship. But the conclusion lacks any real epiphany.

In Retrospect.

We leave the desert feeling parched.

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