German filmmaker Tom Tykwer lives to give audiences weird, wonderful spectacle. He broke through in 1998 with the kinetic and lean thriller Run Lola Run. Later, he got ambitious, reveling in the glorious and grotesque with his 2006 adaptation of the decadent and deranged Patrick Suskind novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Then he teamed up with the Wachowski siblings for their mind-bending and sprawling adaptation of David Mitchell’s “unfilmable” tome Cloud Atlas. And now he’s reteamed with Cloud Atlas star Tom Hanks to bring Dave Eggers’ mid-life crisis story A Hologram for the King to the big screen. The result is a trippy but tender Dad movie.
Hanks stars as Alan Clay, a salesman who used to be a big deal CEO back when Schwinn bicycles were still made in the U.S. But nowadays, he’s dangling by a thread, forced to pitch a hologram technology package he doesn’t understand to Saudi Arabian royalty he doesn’t know for an industrial complex that is still decades away from being raised from the hot desert sands. He’s an old white man who once knew power, praise, and wealth. But Tykwer strips all of that away with a jaunty opening dream sequence that paraphrases the Talking Heads classic, “Once in a Lifetime.” In big plumes of pink smoke, Alan’s mini-mansion, his nagging wife, his luxury SUV disappear as he sing/speaks, “You may find yourself without a beautiful house. Without a beautiful wife. And you might ask yourself, how did I get here?” Alan’s time—he fears—has passed him by. Now, he’s trapped in a world where younger people and new tech makes him feel obsolete.
His anxieties take physical form in a worrisome, bulbous lump that emerges on his back. And as days tick by with no progress on his project, no sign of the king, and mounting pressure from back home, Alan is fast approaching a breaking point. But Tykwer seems less interested in this man’s mundane business plotline. All business talk is rushed right through, sometimes while racing about in a speedy car. It’s cursory. You’ve seen this tale of a business-suited man lost in his middle age before. So Tykwer doesn’t dally on those bits, instead luxuriating in Alan’s something new.
Hanks is affable as ever, but playing a glum failure doesn’t make for much fun. That is until Alan meets the ever-plucky Yousef (Alexander Black). With untamed curls and a playful smile, this self-proclaimed “driver, guide and hero” escorts Alan through the customs and winding desert roads of Saudi Arabia with an uninhibited zeal. For a stint, this Hologram becomes a road trip buddy comedy, complete with culture clash misunderstandings and touching heart-to-heart moments. The pair’s chemistry is effervescent, and damn well better mean big things for charismatic newcomer Black. But Alan’s tale takes another turn when his anxiety lump throws him in the path of
a beautiful doctor, played by the mesmerizing and moving Sarita Choudhury (“Homeland”). A female doctor in this area is very rare, Yousef remarks. But rarer still is the instant connection she and Alan spark. Even with the nation’s strict religious prohibitions, something like this can’t be ignored, right?
It’s in moments of brilliant emotion where A Hologram for the King feels most like a Tykwer movie. In the depths of despair, Alan imagines his teen daughter scolding him through his computer screen, blowing out a wave of cigarette smoke in an angst-driven punctuation. An anxiety attack isn’t just Hanks looking panicked and grasping his chest. Instead, Tykwer flashes lights, distorts the audio, and hurls about the camera to give the audience the jarring sensation of the world wickedly out of control. But the movie’s most beautiful sequence is also its slowest and most meditative. Led by his doctor into the sea, Alan snorkels among underwater palaces of coral and aquatic life. When she joins him, his tension and ours dissolve beneath the waves, as these unlikely lovers reach for a forbidden but beautiful embrace.
It’s easy to imagine a version of this film that plays as xenophobic. Where the king who keeps Alan waiting is painted as an antagonist along with the Chinese who snatched Schwinn’s future away from him. But Tykwer’s version rejects this possible reading, instead acknowledging that Alan’s own bravado and shortsightedness puts him to blame for where he’s ended up. But after the poofs of status symbol-stealing pink clouds pass, Alan is presented a chance to see the world anew and rebuild. He’s challenged to grow by strangers who become friends. And while Hanks makes for a lovable “ugly American,” it’s Black and Choudhury who give A Hologram for the King its soul.
Following its world premiere tomorrow night at the Tribeca Film Festival, A Hologram for the King opens in theaters April 22nd.