A Hologram for the King is an odd little film. It begins as one kind of movie and ends as a different type of movie. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but the story meanders toward its ultimate destination.
Alan Clay (Tom Hanks, anchoring the film with a reliably solid but not top-notch performance) is divorced, works in the tech industry, is more or less clinically depressed for reasons that are completely understandable, and has a worryingly large lump on his back. He’s in Saudi Arabia with his team to present a hologram-based teleconferencing system to the king and hopefully land a lucrative contract regarding information-technology infrastructure. They work in a huge tent at the site of a future center of economy and trade in the middle of the desert, although the timetable for the construction of said center seems to be up in the air. Problems include bureaucracy, lousy Wi-Fi, and getting food. While doing his best to deal with those issues, Alan befriends Yousef (Alexander Black), his driver; Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a Danish woman who knows the lay of the land; and Zahra (Sarita Choudhury), a local doctor. Will his newfound friends brighten Alan’s outlook on life?
Writer and director Tom Tykwer turns Dave Eggers’s novel into an unfocused film that shifts gears several times. At first, it’s about Alan’s presentation, then it becomes a buddy road movie, then a romantic drama. A few flashbacks provide background information but break the admittedly quite pleasant rhythm of the movie. The narrative strands simply don’t form an entirely cohesive whole, and the insights offered by A Hologram for the King are hardly revelatory. It helps little, then, that individual scenes, such as a realistic and visceral depiction of Alan’s experiencing a panic attack, rise above the mediocrity of the rest.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, cultural clashes are one of the themes of A Hologram for the King. The film comments on some of the traditions and religious customs of Saudi Arabia, but the criticism is mild and practically harmless. In one scene, the movie awkwardly attempts to make a humorous point about public executions. It is more successful when it highlights alcohol prohibition and the restrictions on interactions between a man and a woman, with a beautiful scene late in the proceedings saliently illustrating one clever way to circumvent the latter.
The Saudi Arabian setting is just about the only thing that feels fresh here, and a life-lessons movie needs more than that to be compelling. It seems to me that Tykwer has forced the source material into a more generic mold in order to give the cinematic adaptation a broader appeal. Consequently, A Hologram for the King ends up being a motion picture with a curiously subdued quirkiness to it.