Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) is an aging salesman for a
high-tech Boston company who’s assigned to go to Jedda, Saudi Arabia,
and clinch a deal to provide a holographic communications system for a
“city of the future” that’s slowly—very slowly—emerging in the desert.
Clay’s life, as we learn in a dreamlike prologue set to the Talking
Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” has imploded. Financially he’s on his last
legs, having lost his house; he can’t even cover college tuition for
his understanding daughter (Tracey Fairaway). His wife (Jane Perry) has
left him and is unapologetic in her criticism. And he’s haunted by his
role in turning an iconic American company (Schwinn) over to a
conglomerate and sending many of its jobs abroad—a fact that his father
(Tom Skerritt) never tires of upbraiding him with.
The Jedda assignment is something of a last professional chance.
Unfortunately, the circumstances prove unpropitious. Clay and his team
are housed not in the sleek new office building that’s risen in the
middle of nowhere, but in a huge tent a good walk from it—a place with
no air conditioning and irregular wi-fi service, which threatens the
company’s whole demonstration. When Clay goes to a nearby
building for help, he just gets a runaround until he violates
instructions and winds up on an upper floor, where he meets an agreeable
Danish contractor (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who commiserates, presents
him with a bottle of whiskey though alcohol is forbidden in Saudi
Arabia, and ultimately will make a pass at him.
And that’s only the start of Clay’s problems. The king’s expected
visit for the company’s presentation is constantly being delayed. The
monarch’s smooth underlings are friendly but ultimately don’t deliver on
their promises. Alan repeatedly oversleeps, leading him to miss the
bus out to the so-called Metropolis of Industry and Trade and to hire a
driver named Yousef (Alexander Black), a semi-westernized fellow with a
curious sense of humor with whom Alan bonds. And then there’s the
enormous cyst growing on Clay’s back, which he attempts to deal with
himself—an unwise decision that lands him in the care of Zahra (Sarita
Choudhury), a doctor who’s struggling against the Saudi strictures
against female independence. Naturally he’ll be attracted to her, and
she to him, despite all the cultural obstacles.
A Hologram for the King has a rambling, episodic quality that director Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run") probably intended to accentuate the chasm
the protagonist has to face in dealing with so alien a locale. If so,
he’s succeeded only too well; the viewer is likely to feel as much at
sea as Clay is, and just about as frustrated, watching him jump through
what seems an endless series of random hoops.
But, overall, the film is stiff, sometimes didactic and sometimes
kind of goofy while never melding the jarringly different tones into a
cohesive whole. The happy ending, moreover, feels more predetermined
than earned; even the fine performance by Tom Hanks can’t make it entirely credible.