Tom Hanks is like catnip for movie lovers. You could bottle him, brand him, and sell him to us for a high price, for the star’s earnest expressions and musical delivery lifts his portrayal of the everyman to such heights, we can’t help but feel empowered by the fact that, yes, this guy is one of us. And as such, the gentle freight train that is Hanks just keeps on cruising on. But surely it’ll have crashed by now? We haven’t got sick of his charming shtick just yet because he’s so good at it – but there’s a second realisation. This is that while he can be the best thing about good films, a lot of the time, he’s the only good thing about bad ones. Like A Hologram for the King.
Hanks plays Alan Clay, a failed bicycle businessman who (through not very well-explained means) ends up as part of a company attempting to sell hologram technology to the King of Saudi Arabia. When he steps foot in the hugely different world that is the Middle East, problems quickly come his way: daily commutes in the desert prove exhausting; his office is actually a glorified tent; and the King is showing no sign whatsoever of turning up to actually see his team’s presentation. Clay is playing a lengthy waiting game, and it mirrors his own existential crisis as a middle-aged man on the cusp of picking himself back up, or falling apart for good. But that’s just one of many things the movie misses; it instead preoccupies itself with what it must deem as ‘edgy’ editing and flashbacks which betray the inherent grace of the story and setting.
The borderline atonality of A Hologram for the King is the result of a mounting pile of poor choices, which wantonly spill over its classic fish-out-of-water premise. Not only is it stylistically fitful, it’s also structurally unsound: the final 20 minutes border on walk-out-worthiness, the narrative of the movie having already been concluded as it dithers about in indulgent pointlessness. Why don’t we walk out? Because Tom Hanks. The man deserves awards not just for his great performances across the board, but for giving us a reason to stay through bad movies. As Clay, the twinkle of optimism in his character’s eye threatens to dim in the face of the huge pressures doggypiling on him, and it’s a treat to watch him tested to his very limits. When he allows himself to explode just a little, Hanks perfectly captures it as someone who doesn’t quite know how to do so. It’s a travesty that director Tom Tykwer fails to complement that with a movie of any quality, but one relentlessly intent on rushing from flimsy idea to the next without ever forging a central point of emotional reference for us to return to.
There’s also a streak of questionable cultural quips: a remark about Filipino labour is played for giggles, but is mind-bogglingly ignorant of the true state of things in the Middle East. At least we have Alexander Black as Clay’s taxi driver, Yousef, a deep well of thirst-quenching comedy in a desert sorely lacking laughs. But even the near-xenophobic muddling of some of the film’s comic sensibilities pales in comparison to its other formal tricks, one main offender being Hanks performing an inexplicable Talking Heads cover to camera. It feels like so much is being taken from Dave Eggers’ source novel, without ever mining a cinematic throughline; it’s a downright disappointment, as Tykwer is capable of achieving great things. Just look at Run Lola Run, and his portions of Cloud Atlas (also starring Hanks); the man is at worst a visual craftsman, and at best a visionary. But the only thing A Hologram for the King accomplishes is delivering our dose of prescribed Hanks. It’s just a shame about the packaging.
A Hologram for the King is out now in the US, and released on May 20 in the UK.