A Hologram for the King

Another winner from an underrated indie filmmaker

German filmmaker Tom Tykwer doesn’t get much respect in North America. This has always been a mystery to me, because in Europe he’s considered one of the greats and he’s been one of my very favorite directors since he made one of my 25 favorite films of all time, Run Lola Run, in 1998 (it’s the only one of Tykwer’s films that was critically acclaimed in North America).

In the brilliant opening scene, we learn that Alan has lost his house, his wife, and his car. His personal life feels like a roller coaster and his work isn’t going well either.

Since 1998, Tykwer has made a number of excellent and important films, like The Princess and the Warrior (2000), Heaven (2002), Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006), The International (2007), Three (2010), and Cloud Atlas (with the Wachowski siblings in 2012). None of those films were appreciated by North American critics, but I loved all of them. The same is true for Tykwer’s new film, A Hologram for the King.

Despite a great performance from Tom Hanks, one of the best and most beloved comedy-drama actors out there, and despite the popularity of the genre, A Hologram for the King has already disappeared from theatres, just two weeks after its release. It didn’t help that once again the critics were not impressed (except by Hanks).

A Hologram for the King is based on the bestselling novel by Dave Eggers. Tom Hanks stars as Alan Clay, an American IT salesman who flies to Saudi Arabia in 2010 to try to sell a new holographic teleconferencing system to the king. In the brilliant opening scene, we learn that Alan has lost his house, his wife, and his car. His personal life feels like a roller coaster and his work isn’t going well either. Alan’s pain and depression (midlife crisis?) are real, but he is not to be compared to Job (or Nikolay in Leviathan). This is, after all, a comedy, the kind of film (and role) Hanks does as well as any actor ever has. Alan’s losses are the result of a messy divorce, his wife being tired of Alan’s inability to see the big picture. But Alan does have a college-age daughter (Tracey Fairaway) who loves him and tries to assure him that she doesn’t blame him for the fact that she can’t afford college.

Alan’s high hopes for Saudi Arabia are dashed quickly when his driver (Yousef, played wonderfully by Alexander Black) laughs at the prospect of the king’s new city, where Alan hopes to make the sale. When Alan arrives at a handful of buildings in the middle of the desert and finds his team in a large tent, wondering when to expect Wi-Fi (a requirement for the system) and food, he begins to despair, especially when he hears that the king hasn’t visited his “new city” in the past 18 months and no one can guarantee when he might show up for the demonstration Alan and his team are preparing.

A large bump that has recently appeared on his upper back adds to Alan’s worries. After a particularly bad night, Yousef takes Alan to the hospital, where he is cared for by Dr. Zahra Hakem (Sarita Choudhury), one of the few female doctors in Saudi Arabia. Does Alan have cancer on top of all his other problems? Is his stress overwhelming his body or is he perhaps just spending too much time with Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the Danish woman who is trying to be a little too helpful?

All the characters in A Hologram for the King are unique and memorable. The presence of two strong older women as romantic leads is refreshing. The cinematography is excellent, the score is very good (Tykwer wrote much of it himself), and there are some interesting ideas lying just beneath the surface about life and relationships in the 21st century.

One of those ideas is that people around the globe are much more similar than certain powers that be would have us believe. In a time when religions and cultures are viewed by many political leaders as irreconcilable and dangerous differences, the truth is that people have never been closer to each other. Given the opportunity, Tykwer suggests, Christians and Muslims can be wonderful friends, and even people from a repressed society like Saudi Arabia can find much in common with an average American. Politicians and religious leaders draw lines while the media highlights conflicts and terrorism, but the truth, according to Tykwer, is that we are ever moving toward a common humanity.

Humanizing the other and recognizing how we are all the same underneath are common themes for Tykwer, many of whose films bring together people from very diverse backgrounds. And the 21st century connects us all like never before. Via holographic technology, a person in New York can be standing in the middle of a Saudi Arabian desert.

A Hologram for the King is a gentle, quiet, sad, and funny film, with some thoughtful comments on life and love, and I was delighted by almost every minute of it. Romantic comedy-dramas are not my favorite genre, but this one works for me. I recommend it to almost everyone (but not to those who yawn at the mention of a gentle, quiet film).

A Hologram for the King is rated R for some sexuality/nudity, language, and brief drug use.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.