A Hologram for the King is a film where every moment that transpires on-screen feels like it has been vetted by a mid-western test audience in a multiplex—and surely it has. Director Tom Tykwer (who perhaps unbelievably directed the absolutely thrilling Run Lola Run) has put together an old-fashioned kind of film you have probably seen a hundred times by now, a fish-out-of-water story played for broad laughs (Tom Hank’s character Alan Clay keeps sitting on chairs that inexplicably break under him – ha!) where a good-natured everyman makes friends, not enemies, in a foreign land (where everybody speaks English and spent some time in America by the way) and succeeds in the end thanks to his chin-up American can-do.
And as the title suggests, the film is something of an illusion. It wants to be substantial but settles instead for comfortable emotional territory as light as air. Any time the film ventures towards anything that might be troublesome, like when Clay goes past the square where the public executions are held, or stumbles through a partially constructed condo high-rise and sees a group of downtrodden migrant workers having a sort of fight club, or accidentally ends up on the road to Mecca which is for “Muslims Only,” it’s immediately brought back to safe low-middle ground. Don’t worry will be back at the Hyatt hotel in a few moments for all the American comforts, including a nice hot shower and a bottle of contraband whiskey. No drinking in Saudi Arabia, after all. We have different cultures! Ha!
The premise of a middle-aged, down-on-his-luck sales executive traveling to the middle-east to make a presentation seems solid enough, but the film never dares to explore the terrain in any way that you wouldn’t find in a travel brochure. Nor is the technology that Clay is supposedly selling, a type of holographic conferencing, examined. Why is it important? Why does the Saudi government, or anyone need it? What could such a technology do to bring two disparate cultures closer to agreement, to facilitate understanding? What is the meaning of the mirage that he is selling? Whoops, Clay just sat in another chair that fell apart! What were we talking about?
Instead of doing a deep dive (and admittedly the film is supposed to be a light outing), the film focuses on Clay’s broken shoelace problems: he’s divorced, he has financial woes, he doesn’t know if he’s a good father, his boss is an irritating guy (imagine that), he has to make his sales presentation and his team can’t get good wi-fi reception, the King who he’s supposed to meet with continues not to show up, and so on.
Through it all the film reminds you never to export American jobs abroad to countries that are doing a better job of capitalism, making products faster and cheaper, the way Clay did when he was at the Schwinn bicycle company a few years back. And not to have sex with the fun Danish girl, because you don’t know her. Instead you should have a deeper, more meaningful connection with the Saudi doctor who is treating the big lump on your back, which is what Clay does. And it’s this relationship between Clay and his doctor Zahra that is the pre-ordained fate of the film; this is the merging of cultures, the hope that our societies might get along.
The fact that Clay and Zahra have to hide in plain sight, since their relationship is technically a crime punishable by flogging (and perhaps stoning for her since she remains technically married) isn’t anything that really worries them. And it shouldn’t worry you. Rating: C
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