A Little Light Entertainment
Demographers take note: we are living through days in which a Polish-language rom-com entitled Planeta Singli can find enough of an audience to hang on in mainstream UK cinemas for at least a fortnight, while an Anglophone movie, starring Tom Hanks – who is, lest we forget, one of the biggest movie stars of the modern age – barely manages a one-and-done residency. However, it seems this is no mere fluke of geography – Tom Tykwer's A Hologram for the King has taken a bath in virtually every territory where it has been released, making less money than any other film in Hanks' career. Adding to this the fact that this movie has hung around for a few years prior to being released, and the signs are there that a fairly spectacular disaster may well be on the cards.
The sense of a film which has perhaps missed its moment is only compounded by the very-recent-past setting, although to be fair this is mostly left implicit – the source novel, by Dave Eggers, is apparently set in a post-financial crash, pre-Arab Spring 2010. Hanks plays Alan Clay, an IT executive and salesman looking to re-energise his career. To this end he exploits a rather tenuous connection and flies off to Saudi Arabia.
The King of the KSA is intent on conjuring a new city out of nowhere, rather in the same manner modern Dubai has been created, and Clay's company is bidding to provide state-of-the-art IT and communications equipment to the project. However, all is not well as our man arrives – his tech team are not receiving the support they need from the locals, and there's no sign of the King – who they will be presenting to – actually putting in an appearance at the site.
Matters are only compounded by Clay's stressful family situation – he's struggling to support his daughter through college – a few nagging medical issues, and his habit of sleeping through the alarm clock. This leads him to making a connection with a young driver, Yousef (Alexander Black), who shows him a slightly different side of the country...
Well, I have to say that 'will our hero manage to successfully flog a holographic teleconferencing system to the House of Saud?' is not the most naturally enticing of premises for a major movie, and there is definitely a sense in which Hanks is out of his natural territory – this isn't an American studio picture, but a German co-production, and apart from the star and Black most of the significant roles are played by European performers. About the most famous of these is Ben Whishaw, who is in the movie for literally about thirty seconds yet has still managed to bag the coveted 'and' spot.
And the whole film has the slightly indy feel of a co-production – it rather reminded me of films like This Must Be The Place, good looking and made with polish, but rather stronger on character and atmosphere than on actual plot and incident. Hanks has various serio-comic escapades, inevitably meaning he misses the bus every morning and has to get to know Yousef a bit better, writes emails to his daughter (thus enabling some good voice-over stuff from Hanks), finds himself out of his depth at a surprisingly high-octane party at the Danish embassy, gets to know a female Saudi doctor (Sarita Choudhury), and so on.
It's all rather bitty, and some of the bits are better than others – it kicks off with Hanks delivering a rendition of Talking Heads' Once in a Lifetime, which he does with his customary gusto, but in the end it settles down to be about a romance between Hanks and Choudhury, which manages the neat trick of being both rather predictable and still somewhat implausible.
You wonder what made Tom Hanks take on a film like this. (You wonder how a film like this managed to land a megastar like Tom Hanks.) Well, you can perhaps see why this kind of project would appeal to an actor like Hanks – the central character is in virtually every second of the film and does demand a performance of great range and skill from the actor responsible. That's an interesting challenge, and to be fair to Hanks it's one which he rises to with consummate skill. Even when the film is at its least focused and most improbable, Hanks is there, giving it his considerable best, keeping it watchable and engaging.
I've heard it said that the mark of a great actor is that they can be good in a bad movie. I really wouldn't call A Hologram for the King an outright bad movie, but the fact that it isn't is almost solely due to Tom Hanks – it's probably stretching a point to say that A Hologram for the King is basically just Tom Hanks' performance and not much else, but at the same time it is the one and only element of the film which is inarguably accomplished, entertaining, and memorable. Nevertheless, this is still a very curious little film which I suspect will end up being very little remembered.