Tom Tykwer observes maniacal perseverance in A Hologram for the King, forgetting about everything but his stellar lead.
One of the defining qualities of a great actor is being able to stay afloat in a movie that is otherwise destined to drown. In A Hologram for the King, Tom Hanks plays Alan Clay, a suffering tech entrepreneur who travels to Saudi Arabia to pitch his latest gadget to the king. Not only is Hanks able to stay afloat, but he manages to scramble ashore and watch as his movie vanishes into the depths.
Alan Clay and the rest of the film constantly fight for attention. Alan is worrisome, curious, and is played completely straight. The rest of the film sits uncomfortably between sitcom and slapstick, and later morphs unexpectedly into a melodramatic love story with an overriding theme that echoes The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. We can see the confusion on Alan’s face as he shuffles about the plot; if only he could see the confusion on our faces as we try to make sense of his world.
Hanks has played the underdog many times, with the kind of urgency that convinces us of his right to come out on top at the end. His Alan Clay is one of his most urgent; a man stifled at every turn, blocked by forces unknown, hampered by a convoluted past, yet still overflowing with dogged optimism. In some ways it’s a very tiring performance, but Hanks has the stamina and the patience.
Elsewhere, his supporting cast is like a packet of mixed nuts. The oddest is the driver Yousef, played by Alexander Black channeling the worst bits of a Zach Galifianakis stoner. Yousef drives a lemon and warns the jittery Alan that he has to disconnect and reconnect the engine each time for fear of someone wiring a bomb to his car. He also enjoys Elvis, and fashions his hair after candy floss.
Alan’s job in the country is to pitch his latest holographic technology to the king. The king, being the king, arrives for the meeting two weeks late, without notice, in a tent in the middle of nowhere. Alan’s crew complains about the food and the wifi, but is later in high spirits when they demonstrate the new tech, a moment in the film that gives Ben Whishaw cinema’s most fruitless cameo.
That’s the sitcom bit. A Hologram for the King turns into a romantic drama when Alan discovers a growth on his back and seeks help from the local doctor, played matter-of-factly by Sarita Choudhury, but to what end does this encounter lead?
The movie is directed by the German Tom Tykwer, whose films have always doubled back on themselves, creating a kind of narrative time loop. His most well-known is Run Lola Run, a German film shot and cut together like a video game. It dealt with second chances. A Hologram for the King also deals with second chances, but Tykwer blurs the lines between what we need to take seriously and what we should scoff at. The result, I’m afraid, is a sombre movie disguised as a silly comedy, and our sympathies never quite know where to go.
A Hologram for the King is available in Australian cinemas from July 28
Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures