Tom Hanks once again reminds us that he is the quintessential American Everyman with a deeply affecting turn as the symbol of modern American enterprise in A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING, based on the novel of the same name by Dave Eggers, and adapted by Tom Tykwer. Think of it as an updated version of THE MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT and a dash of Waiting for Godot, with an existential crisis taking the form of karmic payback for venal decisions made without malice, and also with no understanding of their unintended consequences.
He’s Alan Clay, a businessman on the skids personally and professionally who is running on adrenaline, hope, and fears about many things, including that lump that is growing on his back. His last chance, amid the ruins of his marriage and a once plush financial portfolio that has forced his daughter to drop out of college, is to close an IT deal with the ruler of Saudi Arabia for a new city that is currently under construction in the desert. He has a tenuous connection to the royal family and no understanding of the culture he will be negotiating, but he is savvy enough to know that any plans he makes may need to be abandoned when he gets there, and desperate enough to do anything to make this deal work. In this case, waiting patiently for the peripatetic King to arrive for the demonstration of holographic teleconferencing that will seal the deal.
Told from Alan’s point of view, there are no subtitles to give us the specifics when a suave government liaison pointedly snubs Alan’s gregarious driver, Yousef (Alexander Black) and barks words that, truth be told, get the message across to us. Is it a class issue? A tribal feud? Or just bad manners on someone’s part, maybe even Alan’s for having brought Yousef inside the luxurious business office? Is this the reason that Alan is never able to make it past the receptionist after his first day on the job, parrying the receptionist’s polite contempt with unfailing good manners? Part of the film’s fascination, is trying to sort it all out with Alan as the most unlikely tour guide, but also one with an innate decency and indisputable altruism that compels him to take an interest in the welfare of those around him. Including his driver with the complicated romantic life, and the enigmatic doctor (Sarita Choudhury) who, contrary to Saudi custom, examines his anterior lump without a third party in the room to chaperone.
Hanks is an actor that never needs to stoop to scenery chewing melodrama. He also has that sterling ability to be in the moment, which is far more effective in connecting with the audience than histrionics. The running joke about chairs breaking whenever Alan attempts to sit on them works because Hanks makes us believe that Alan is genuinely surprised every time it happens, and that the hurt is as much psychic as physical. When Alan sees where his team is quartered, a tent plopped unceremoniously some distance from the marble majesty of the offices where that suave liaison works, Hanks is at his most remarkable. With a few micro-expressions and an almost palpable mustering of inner resources, he absorbs the snub before his people have noticed his arrival, and slips easily into the upbeat optimist that they need, saying all the things that they need to hear and making them believe that he will fix everything. It’s an impeccably performed transformation, and for all the farcical moments of coat-room seduction with an attractive Danish payroll officer (Sidse Babett Knudsen), or the panic attack that accompanies an evening of drinking and introspection, it’s those few seconds in the doorway of that tent that ground the character, and nothing tops it. Even Choudhury’s magnetic reserve.
A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING has Tykwer’s kinetic style which gives us Alan singing a Talking Heads ditty as his old life goes up in pink smoke, and it also has finely observed study of tension and absurdity that keeps the movie’s flowing with its own particular and potent energy. Never rushed, never slow, always exploring and willing to embrace the unexpected on its own terms.