“A Hologram for the King” beams into theaters at kind of an awkward time. Tom Hanks, the ultimate walking metaphor for the American Everyman, plays a character who travels to Saudi Arabia for a business meeting with the country’s monarch. President Barack Obama, whose status as a representative of the United States is anything but metaphorical, has just concluded his own trip to the same nation, as relations between the U.S. and the KSA (that’s “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”) are decidedly strained.
Alan Clay (Hanks) has been sent by his bosses to oversee a sales pitch presentation of a new holographic communication system. It’s a technology designed to make trips like Alan’s redundant, just as he (we later learn) made several hundred Schwinn bicycle factory workers redundant some years back. Now his life is falling apart, as exposited clumsily during the opening scene, which has Hanks performing a bastardized version of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” as his beautiful house and beautiful wife disappear into puffs of smoke behind him.
The ironies of “The World Is Flat”-style globalization are part of what makes “Hologram” a fascinating entry in Hanks’ increasingly textured catalog of decent, but hardly perfect, men. You could argue that Clay represents a befuddled, diminished America–forced to cool his heels in a tent with his team, stymied by Saudi bureaucracy and waiting for a royal audience that may or may not ever happen.
Clay’s anxiety is exacerbated by his inability to pay for his daughter’s college tuition, and by an ominous lump that has appeared in the middle of his upper back. In other words, he’s worried about education and health care and how they’re not what they used to be. Sound familiar?
There are pleasant distractions, including a raucous, boozy party at the Danish embassy and, especially, the endearing female doctor Clay visits regarding his lump. She’s played with subtle charm by Sarita Choudhury, who made her film debut twenty-five years ago in “Mississippi Masala.” Another distraction, for this viewer at least, is the overly familiar character of Yousef, the wise-cracking but loyal, American-pop-music-loving driver and guide enlisted by Clay. He’s played by American actor Alexander Black, an unknown who’s got exuberance to spare, but who has the misfortune of coming on the heels of Christopher Abbott’s similarly whitewashed casting in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” just last month.
The Saudi Arabia depicted in “Hologram” seems designed to remind us of the vast differences between its culture and that of the West, as well as the shared humanity that transcends them. Booze is officially forbidden, but readily available if you know the right people. There are public executions, but everyone is unfailingly polite. (Those two might be related…) It’s a mass of contradictions, like any society is when you look at it closely enough. Of course, you can’t make a movie with alcohol consumption and fleeting nudity in the KSA, so director Tom Tykwer filmed mostly in Morocco.
Tykwer’s last directing gig was his collaboration with the Wachowskis on “Cloud Atlas,” which featured Hanks’ strangest performance. Here he’s adapting Dave Eggers’ novel, and putting Forrest Gump in the lead was a smart, if predictable move. As Hanks transitions out of middle-aged roles (he turns 60 in a couple of months), it’ll be interesting to see how his ability to act as an objective correlative for our national self-image evolves.
(97 minutes, rated R, opens Friday, April 22, at Regal Fox Tower and other locations) GRADE: B