Whatever quality it was that made Dave Eggers the “It Boy” of American literature ever since the modestly-titled “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” plum evades big screen translation in “A Hologram for the King.”
A misshapen, aimless midlife crisis travelogue/romance with discourses on the the repression and inequity of Saudi Arabia, dating in the Islamic world and the nature of American/Chinese business competition, it’s the weakest Tom Hanks vehicle in decades.
And as a signature piece, it renders the ineffable qualities of Eggers into the WTF-able, another eye-rolling revelation that publishing is a New York circle-jerk, serving up one self-absorbed, photogenic young rich white prodigy after another — see McInerney, Jay, or Roth, Veronica.
Hanks stars as Alan Clay, introduced to us in a dream rendition of his state-of-life delivered through a music video. Clay walks through his divorce, career uncertainty and 60ish ennui singing the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.”
“And you may ask yourself, ‘Well, How did I get here?'”
“Here” is on a plane and in a pickle, an aging salesman flying to Saudi Arabia where his Boston tech firm is pitching The Kingdom its business communication services, complete with holograms. It’s a do-or-die mission for Alan, badgered by his boss, divorced and without the cash to send his daughter to college.
He faces jet lag and culture clash in Saudi Arabia, where his team is stuffed into an air-conditioned, wi-fi deprived tent in a long-gestating Metropolis of Economy and Trade, a planned-city that is nowhere near ready for them.
He is stood-up, dismissed, brushed-off and lied to at every turn by assorted Saudis. And he can’t seem to wake up in time for his daily shuttle bus to the planned city. So he keeps hiring a driver, the chatty, working-class Western pop fan Yousef. Casting a non-Arab in this part (Alexander Black) is the least of this comic relief character’s problems.
“You like Chicago?”
“Not in the winter.”
“No, CHICAGO,” followed by the vocal stylings of Peter Cetera.
Alan’s fish-out-of-water search for a palliative drink in this Islamic State leads him into the hedonistic underworld of Westerners who sneak off for drunken, semi-nude revels out of the sight of disapproving clerics and their version of the Church Police.Sidse Babett Knudsen plays a not-quite-helpful but on-the-make Danish employee of The Kingdom.
Everywhere Alan turns, there is evidence of open class warfare, the dismissive contempt of the sheikhs, the semi-enslaved foreign workers hired to do everything and the tightly-controlled non-royal populace, their behavior and future curtailed by religious restrictions in a rich, backward totalitarian state.
Every random episode — Alan goes to the mountains to see how Yousef’s armed, rural fundamentalist extended family lives, watch Alan get ditched by the minor nobleman he’s trying to meet — is a cliche.
It’s enough to give a guy a cyst, which is how Alan meets the attractive (Sarita Choudhury) female doctor (A female doctor in Saudi Arabia? The scandal!). That sets up another random change in what, for want of a better word, we will call the movie’s “direction” — a romance.
Speaking of fellows out of their element, the German director Tom Tykwer is an odd choice to handle something this light. I mean, “Cloud Atlas” and “The International” and “Perfume” are not exactly calling cards for adapting a comic novel, or whatever you want to call Eggers’ book.
Hanks is game, playing a guy coming to terms with his shortcomings and the business practices that put him and America in this position, toadying to a bunch of hostile, rich rubes. Hanks doesn’t let us see him straining for cute, the way he did in the even shallower but similarly plotted (career reboot, romantic reboot) “Larry Crowne.”
But jokes don’t land and our ability to be slack-jawed over the stunning contrasts and social limitations of life in TKS (The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) is long past. We know these gauche monarchs, oligarchs and their irate and often fanatical subjects aren’t anybody worth cozying up to, even if some of our leaders are slow to figure that out.
“A Hologram for the King” is a movie about mirages, illusions and delusions, none bigger than the notion that this was ever going to be anything more than an intriguing, watchable failure.
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality/nudity, language and brief drug use
Running time: 1:38