With his performances in “Bridge Of Spies” and now “A Hologram For The King,” Tom Hanks appears to have settled on the perfect synthesis of his comedic and dramatic sides. In Steven Spielberg’s Cold War drama, within the noble-everyman stance he adopted as James B. Donovan, the American lawyer who was eventually forced to go to a divided Germany to help the U.S. facilitate a prisoner exchange, Hanks brought occasional glints of the innocent jokester of his younger days, except now deepened with shadings of world-weariness.
This mixture of slyness and despondency is at the heart of the character he plays in Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of Dave Eggers’ 2012 novel: Alan Clay, a down-on-his-luck businessman who comes to Saudi Arabia in a last-ditch attempt to make up for the losses he recently sustained from a failed biking business. He’s a familiar type: a middle-aged man in the throes of a mid-life crisis, having seen his previously comfortable existence shattered. But whereas Bill Murray emphasized melancholy in essaying a similarly disillusioned character in “Lost In Translation,” Hanks brings to Clay a nervous energy, a sense of desperation to even his most outwardly optimistic of gestures, that nevertheless always seems tempered by a more sober inner awareness of his own failures.
It’s a remarkable performance in a film that is unworthy of it. While Eggers’ novel situated its main character in a context distinctly of our current globalized moment — with the failure of Clay’s biking business coming as the result of both China’s encroaching economic dominance and the global financial crisis — Tykwer strips away much of the topicality and turns it into a more conventional tale of a white American going to an exotic country to try to get his groove back. An opening fantasy sequence in which Clay mouths an altered version of the lyrics to Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” — still the premier anthem of middle-class despair — sets the whimsical tone, as does the subsequent image of Clay as the only white man in a sea of Middle Eastern men on a plane. If that last image reminds one of the visual joke in “Lost In Translation” of tall Bill Murray standing in an elevator full of short Japanese men, that may not be accidental. As good as Sofia Coppola’s film is, in a certain light, it could also be seen as the rather unfortunate spectacle of two privileged Americans too hung up on their own despair to engage with the foreign culture around them. Tykwer’s film is, if anything, even worse: the spectacle of a whole Middle Eastern culture subjugated for the sake of this one American’s rejuvenation from his first-world problems.
The jokey exoticization of Saudi Arabian culture begins with the “king” of the title: King Abdullah, a ruler who is, for the most part, nowhere to be seen — in fact, has not been seen for the past 18 months, according to some of his underlings. Instead, until the end — when he finally appears at just the moment the film requires him to do so — we only hear about the king’s jet-setting adventures around the Middle East, which he apparently does impulsively and without warning, to the understandable frustration of Clay, his three American associates, and the superiors who sent him there in the first place. We do see a lot of Yousef (Alexander Black), the cabbie who drives Clay around a lot and becomes his best friend in the country, but he’s characterized as little more than just another token comic-relief sidekick of color, complete with cutesy camel paperweight in the front of the cab and an ostensibly funny obsession with checking his vehicle for signs of a bomb planted in the engine. Even the one heart-to-heart moment between the two smacks of cultural insensitivity: when Clay suggests Yousef should leave the country altogether, his response is, “I prefer to stay here and have things be different” — an insultingly simple-minded answer that receives no further elaboration.
More egregious, however, are the two foreign female characters, both of whom exist solely as markers of Clay’s libido. There’s Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the Danish woman who works for King Abdullah’s second-in-command, Karim al-Ahmad (Khalid Laith), and who basically throws herself at him at a Danish Embassy party for no apparent reason other than to reveal, through his rejection of her advances, how lacking in sex drive he is in his current despairing state. His salvation, however, comes in the form of Dr. Hassan (Sarita Choudhury), who appears so smitten with this sad-sack after one doctor’s appointment — for a mysterious bump in Clay’s back that he tries, during one drunken evening, to cut out with scissors — that she willingly rushes to his aid when he calls her during a panic attack, takes over the surgery to remove that aforementioned cyst on his back, and then ultimately seduces him through a topless snorkeling session. It’s pure Harlequin fantasy…but then, an exotic fantasy is basically what “A Hologram For The King” is, something no amount of Tom Hanks’s conviction can hide. [C]