I knew very little about A Hologram for the King when I screened the film with other members of the press, but what I did know made me cringe at the possibilities of its premise. Perhaps it’s just the jaded cinematic cynic in me, but the prospect of a dramedy poised to examine America’s waning economic influence in the Middle East through a typical fish-out-of-water, culture-clash lens didn’t inspire much optimism. And the idea of such a film featuring the star of Larry Crowne and helmed by the director of Run Lola Run left me prepared for a strange and possibly disastrous morning at the movies. So imagine my surprise in discovering that A Hologram for the King is, in fact, a very deftly handled affair.
My trepidation was at least understandable, since the last attempt at literary adaptation involving Tom Hanks and writer/director Tom Tykwer produced 2012’s bloated and disjointed Cloud Atlas. However, unlike that earlier pairing, A Hologram for the King proved to be a beautiful expression of restraint and understatement in filmmaking. While I assumed the film would focus heavily on the Otherness of Islam and, in particular, the socio-cultural subset of Saudi Islamic theocracy, I was struck by just how mundane and humanizing this film’s portrayal of Arab culture actually turned out to be.
Rather than fixating on contextual circumstance, this movie roots its drama firmly in a focus on character development. This choice allows the obvious cultural divide to be explored through a sympathetic protagonist, thereby encouraging the audience to adopt his point of view, and thus mirror the increasing inclusivism that constitutes Hanks’ character arc. As far as narrative sleight-of-hand goes, this is an especially effective example, as the primacy of character over plot allows the script to approach a delicate message without descending into preachy condescension.
Beyond the delicate balancing act that King achieves, the script is also very funny when it needs to be. Most of the comedic intercession comes at the hands of Alexander Black’s Yusef, Hanks’ significantly westernized driver and guide with a penchant for late-’70s pop music, ranging from ELO to Chicago. When Black is not around to deliver pithy one-liners, the film finds humor in Hanks’ Willie-Loman-esque struggle to cope with the Byzantine business practices of his Saudi counterparts and the maintenance of his disaffected team of U.S. tech jockeys. Humor is a critical component of King’s package, as the story itself could have been unbearably bleak otherwise.
As highly as I would recommend this film, it is not without its drawbacks; Tykwer still displays a proclivity for excessive stylization that can be distracting at times (although he thankfully limits this to narratively appropriate venues such as dream sequences), and at times Hanks appears to be attempting to channel the physical comedy and eyebrow-acting of his early career at the expense of the subtlety that has defined much of his more effective late-period work. The ending feels distinctly perfunctory, so much so that a fellow critic missed the entire denouement with an ill-timed trip to the bathroom. But on the whole, A Hologram for the King is a remarkably thoughtful and heartfelt film that never forgets to be entertaining. Rated R for some sexuality/nudity, language and brief drug use.