The first of several filmed adaptations of Dave Eggers’ novels, “A Hologram for the King” takes its cues from one of the author’s more recent accomplishments, a 2012 character study that has been aptly described as a kind of “Death of a Salesman” for the global village age. Tom Hanks plays disgruntled businessman Alan Clay, who spends the duration of the movie on an aimless trip to Saudia Arabia to propose an IT contract to the king, who may or may not show up. This premise provides an ideal vessel for Eggers’ recurring fixation on America’s fractured, disoriented state, and there may be no better match for such material than the country’s best-known everyman star. But whereas Eggers’ gently expressive style says much with little, in feature-length form, the approach translates into something much less.
Which is not to say that Hanks, and writer-director Tom Tykwer, don’t try to get at the essence of the material. Ever since his time-twisting debut “Run Lola Run,” Tykwer has remained an inventive visual stylist with the ability to inject a wide variety of genres with poetic resonance. He achieves as much in the opening dream sequence of “Hologram,” in which Alan speaks directly to the camera while voicing the spoken word intro to the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” Despite the blunt metaphor — a downtrodden salesman asking himself, “How did I get here?” as he jets off to a foreign land — Tykwer’s snazzy presentation puts an ironic frame around Hanks’ genial presence, establishing a strong cryptic tone upfront.
But it’s devices like this that make Alan’s conundrum register as only surface-deep (one heavy-handed recurring image finds him riding a roller coaster). No matter how much Tykwer punctuates the narrative with a gorgeous, yawning landscape, the movie doesn’t manage to develop Alan’s alienated state in any substantial fashion. Hanks’ squinting can only go so far. Imagine “Lost in Translation” in the Middle East and you’ll get a good idea of the soul-searching that drives the meandering plot forward.
“A Hologram For the King” never congeals into a single, involving story; the much-awaited meeting with the king comes and goes as an afterthought, at which point it’s supplanted by a thinly-conceived romance between Hanks’ character and a benevolent local doctor (Sarita Choudhury). At best, this developing chemistry explores the universality of loneliness that has the power to bond two people from wildly different cultural backgrounds; at worst, it also does that, with terribly sappy results.
The most intriguing aspect of the plot surrounds the various ways in which the society’s bans on behavior — drinking, sexuality — add to the American traveler’s disorientation from the life he left behind, even as they ultimately allow him the opportunity for a reboot. But this perspective of a white man in foreign territory isn’t self-aware enough to yield much more than an outsider’s perspective on a world that neither he, nor the movie, can fully comprehend. With the shrug of a fairy tale ending, “A Hologram For the King” settles for a utopian ideal out of sync with the searing analytical nature of its premise. If Alan represents America’s awkward relationship to wealthy overseas entities, his fate seems far too tidy.
As the movie’s sole credited screenwriter, Tykwer has put the emotional resonance and global politics of the novel in air quotes. It’s Eggers minus Eggers — a whimsical tale that aspires to make its whimsy count for something deep, and instead just gazes at a distant land in a baffled state, much like its melancholic lead.
“A Hologram For the King” opens in limited release this Friday.