A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING Sees Tom Hanks in a Sadly Lackluster Effort

by Frank Calvillo

One of the most spectacular bombs of 2015 was certainly the Barry Levinson-directed, Bill Murray-starring comedy Rock the Kasbah, which saw a failed music agent travel to the Middle East in an effort to find success. For various reasons, the film tanked, becoming the lowest grossing entry in Murray’s filmography. This week, Hollywood looks to have another crack at taking a beloved movie star and placing him in a story which blends Western sensibilities with Middle Eastern customs in the Tom Hanks starrer A Hologram for the King.

Directed by Run Lola Run’s Tom Twyker, the plot of A Hologram for the King boasts a similar one to that of the abovementioned film. Here, Hanks plays struggling businessman Alan Clay, who has traveled to Saudi Arabia in an effort to sell his company’s IT brand to the country’s king in an effort to save his fledgling career. Along the way, Alan finds himself befriending a driver-for-hire named Yousef (Alexander Black) and a beautiful doctor named Zahra (Sarita Choudhury).

The main problem with A Hologram for the King is that there are too simply too many differing tones at play, which don’t really seem to work at all. The humorous moments fall flat mainly because most of them are so awkward and uncomfortable, such as Alan’s exchanges with a receptionist who continuously informs him that his contact is not in, or when he is invited to a social gathering at the Dutch embassy, which ends up being the equivalent of a frat party, with middle aged men and women snorting coke and dancing on poles. On the opposite side of the spectrum, most of the dramatic moments are played out with such subtlety that they ring as somewhat hollow. The discovery of a cancerous growth on Alan’s back and his guilt about not being able to pay for his daughter’s college tuition are real problems, but for some season, pack almost no punch drama-wise.

Another glaring problem with the film is that although we are given various shades of Alan’s past, ultimately we don’t know him well enough to care about whether or not things turn out alright for him. Instead, we just assume that they will by the time the film comes to an end and check our watches on occasion until that happens.

A Hologram for the King definitely piqued my interest because of the previous collaborations between Hanks and the people behind the scenes. I genuinely feel that Cloud Atlas was one of 2012’s greatest offerings, and I’m glad that appreciation for the film, Twyker’s co-direction, and Hank’s performance in it has grown since then. Likewise, this film was based on a novel by Dave Eggers, who, along with Hanks as executive producer, helped bring Where the Wild Things Are and all its poetic imagination and beauty to the screen for what was my favorite film of 2009. Maybe it was my deep love for those two films that caused me to place too many expectations on A Hologram for the King. But the film was just so erratic in so many ways that I found it all but impossible to embrace, save for only a handful of scenes. Those moments came during the various exchanges between Alan and Zahra, which were seeped in such a strong beauty from their very first frame together. I loved seeing these two individuals from completely different worlds, who cling to the only way of life that they know, find each other. I wanted the movie to be about them. Just them and no one else.

Hanks is Hanks here. Alan doesn’t necessarily give him a lot to play with dramatically, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t turn in another dependable job, which will once again make people brand him a modern-day James Stewart. Black seems like a capable enough actor, but the ambiguity of his role, which sees him straddling between light drama and comedy, doesn’t seem like a worthy showcase for his talents. If there’s any winner in the cast of A Hologram for the King, its Choudhury, who has never been better as the soft, yet strong Zahra. The way she embodies her character with both sensitivity and determination is a wonder to behold. I have been somewhat of a fan of the actress after seeing her log in many hours playing opposite big names such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Paul Giamatti in minor roles. Her work here is simply stunning and a real indicator of the kind of performance she is capable of.

A Hologram for the King probably won’t be remembered years from now except as a nothing more than a minor vehicle for its star and a questionable project for its director. The whole experience made me question what has happened to Hanks’s career if this is what he is being offered. However, after coming off one of his and Steven Spielberg’s best collaborations to date with Bridge of Spies, I can only assume that this was definitely a passion project of his. I remember another time, not too long ago, when the actor favored passion over prestige/box office with his starring/directing turn in the comedy Larry Crowne. I remember being so taken with that film’s brand of quirky, life-affirming energy and the joyous spirit that it contained. I’m sure Hanks felt the same way about this film. Unfortunately I have a sneaky suspicion that he might be the only one who will.

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