Given its corny, sterile trailer, it was hard to expect much from "A Hologram for the King," which premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. But for a movie essentially about a man waiting around for a sales-pitch meeting, it has an awful lot to say.
On paper, "A Hologram for the King," stars Tom Hanks as a businessman trying to save his struggling IT firm by flying to win a contract for a yet-to-be-built city in the Saudi Arabian desert. It threatens to be a clumsy, culture-clash tale, superficially told through the eyes of a middle-aged white man. But Hanks and "Cloud Atlas" director Tom Tykwer, working from Tykwer's adaptation of a Dave Eggers novel, achieve something more.
Hanks' Alan Clay has a lot on the line in Saudi Arabia. His company's life is at stake: Clay has some not-so-great memories of screwing over another company's employees by outsourcing their jobs — including his daughter's — to China. Now he needs to keep his own job or he will not be able to pay for her return to college. Clay's anxiety about providing for his employees and his daughter mirrors to the serious concerns many Americans have about the future of their country. Of, course Clay blames all his recent shortcomings on a curious bump on his back — his life may be on the line, too.
Clay's quest to find a new beginning in Saudi Arabia is an allegory for America's loosening grip on supreme global relevance. Though the movie was actually filmed in Morocco, Saudi Arabia proves a good canvas. Instead of getting fixated on slapstick, fish-out-of-water gags with Middle Eastern food and hijabs, Tykwer, for the most part, keeps the focus on the nuance of the culture clash. The film sometimes flips too freely between comedy and drama, but scenes like Clay's chat with the earnest, but dopey cab driver Yousef (Alexander Black) about hypothetical U.S. support of a democratic revolution in Saudi Arabia prove the goal here is more than comedy.
The film does not get lazy with the romance plotline either. While waiting an indeterminable amount of time to pitch the Saudi king, Clay falls for not the young, blonde IT worker on his beleaguered team; nor the wild, blonde human resources manager from Denmark, despite her crush on him; but for the middle-aged, Middle Eastern Zahra (Sarita Choudhury), a rare female doctor whom he meets while getting his back checked out. How refreshing! Plus, Tykwer bravely treats a great sex scene between the two fifty-something characters with unrestrained passion.
Of course, this is a Tom Hanks movie. So, there's humor, too, with plenty of time afforded for Hanks' wit and easy delivery. "A Hologram for the King" drags in places and veers on unnecessary tangents, often enough that many of its storylines and characters feel abandoned by the end. However, it is also much more fun than its tagline and smarter than its silly trailer would lend you to believe, proof that Hanks is capable of elevating anything he touches.
Watch the trailer for "A Hologram for the King" below: