Saturday, April 23, 2016

"A Hologram for the King"

 2 / 5 

There's one scene of genuine invention in Tom Tykwer's unfocused, meandering movie A Hologram for the King, and unfortunately it's the first one.  Like an epigraph in a book, Tykwer has Tom Hanks playing straight to the camera as he repeats some of the lyrics of the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime."

Our Everyman Tom is too old to be young and too young to be old, his wife has left him, his job has left him, and he's stuck in the vast desert of his life with no idea of which way to go.  "Well," he wonders, "how did I get here?"

Only momentarily does the movie again become as clever, mostly it's as laborious and obvious as that metaphor, with Everyman Tom, here named Alan Clay, a once-powerful executive of the Schwann Bicycle Company who made a decision to send its American manufacturing to China, a move that in real life really did destroy the company.  It destroyed Alan's career, too, and because that was way back in the early 2000s, Alan didn't get a big giant golden parachute for making a bad decision (as seems to be the case in corporate America today), he lost his job and his reputation. But A Hologram for the King isn't particularly interested in the details of business.

Rather, it wants us to relate to Alan, a man cast adrift like Everyman Tom has experienced before, though he has more than a volleyball to keep him company this time.  After the Schwinn fiasco, Alan became an IT salesman for a technology company that wants to sell holographic video conferencing to the king of Saudi Arabia.  So, the company sends Alan and a few colleagues to the desert kingdom to try to make the sale.  But the king is a no-show.

That leaves Alan endless days of waiting and worrying, of doing everything but the work he's supposed to be doing.  In fact, Alan doesn't seem to do much of anything at all, except show up once in a while, tell the anonymous colleagues that the king isn't showing up, and then fretting about his life.

Now, there's nothing wrong with fretting about your life.  Or, that is, there's everything wrong with it, and I should know, I do it as often and as well (or poorly) as anyone.  And if there's one thing that A Hologram for the King gets right, it's the way that Alan's fear of failure and of an uncertain future become manifest in physical ways that lead to even more neurotic obsession.

In one of the movie's endless digressions, which its aimless screenplay mistakes for plot, Alan has a large growth on his back, which he finally decides to puncture with a steak knife, leading him to a Saudi hospital where a rare female doctor (Sarita Chowdhury) reassures him that his problems are less physical than mental, and seems alarmingly unconcerned about a mass the size of a golf ball on Alan's back.  They bond over personal fears.  Later, when Alan has a full-on anxiety attack, he calls her, and though the stringent moral code of Saudi Arabia apparently frowns on it, she sits alone with him in his hotel room.  They fall in love.

That alone might have made a terrific movie, a sort of Saudi Lost in Translation, a movie that reverberates loudly through A Hologram for the King, but the romance only part of the plot.  There's also a budding friendship with Yousef a wacky, talkative driver, who's played well by American actor Alexander Black (yes, the movie features an American as the Saudi sidekick and an Indian as the Saudi love interest), who takes Alan on a long side trip, both literally and figuratively.  And Alan has a strange, momentary fling with a Danish woman he meets at the worksite.

There's lots of random discussion about the rampant growth and endless wealth in Saudi Arabia, the way cities spring up like man-made oases in the desert, and there are very weird, non-sequitur scenes in which Alan is ignored by the company that's supposed to be hosting him.

Throughout it all, the king keeps his distance, which is supposed to make the story feel a little like Waiting for Godot, I guess, and it might if the story were about a group of Americans waiting for the Saudi king, but it's not.  It's about an American man having a nervous breakdown and a crisis of faith in Saudi Arabia, a plot summary that should have made a fascinating, compelling movie, but it didn't.  A Hologram for the King lacks that kind of focus, it keeps shifting like the dunes, never settling in any one place, blowing around until it becomes as irritating and grating as the swirling sand.

In its few moments of clarity, A Hologram for the King offers a compelling glimpse at the movie it might have been -- surreal, assured, sad and sympathetic for the Alans of the world, whose lives didn't turn out the way they planned, and who want to know how they got here.

According to the credits, it took eight executive producers and 11 different production companies to make A Hologram for the King.  Between them, something went wrong.  The movie needed a little less Hollywood dealmaking and a little more poetic inspiration like the song that fuels its powerhouse opening scene.

Viewed April 23, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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