Don’t hold it against Tom Tykwer’s A Hologram for the King that its best scene is also its first. As Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) strides down a suburban street singing a modified version of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” (“You may find yourself … without a beautiful house … without a beautiful wife …”), the world around him — the house, the car and, yes, the wife — vanishes into purple clouds of CGI smoke. Then, suddenly, he wakes up in an airplane, surrounded by white-clad pilgrims headed to the Hajj in Saudi Arabia, all audibly praying with their eyes closed. It’s a wild, disorienting way to kick things off. And it’s unlike anything else in the rest of this otherwise contemplative film.
But Tykwer, the director responsible for Run Lola Run (1998) and the 2006 adaptation of Patrick Susskind’s famously unfilmable Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, likes that sort of thing: grand, stylized, cinematic gestures in pursuit of the subtle and the symbolic. It’s fitting that he’s taken on Dave Eggers’ existential 2012 fable about a 50-something American businessman preparing to present a new 3-D teleconferencing technology to the Saudi monarch. The king keeps not showing up, ditto the other bureaucrats Alan needs to meet. So the salesmen and his team of young tech-heads are stuck with nothing to do in an empty stretch of desert where a proposed city of the future is to be built: the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade. (In the book, it’s called the King Abdullah Economic City, or KAEC. Abdullah died in 2015, but that doesn’t quite explain the name change, since the construction project, which exists in real life, is still known by its original moniker.)
The film remains mostly faithful to Eggers’ story, showing us Alan as he splits his time between the desert and the Saudi city of Jeddah, where he befriends a young, awkward driver named Yousef (Alexander Black), a Danish consultant named Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and a female Saudi doctor named Dr. Hakim (Sarita Choudhury). Through these interactions, we see the languid despair of the country’s youth, the self-destructive hedonism of expats and the sly ways in which cosmopolitan elites get around this society's strict regulations. It’s a fragmented world — divided between city and desert, between religions, classes, men and women — and Tykwer revels in the all-consuming unease. In his film, the display of a Saudi lingerie store in which the female models’ faces have been removed can double as both a symbol of sexual oppression and Antonioni-esque malaise.
In Eggers’ novel, Alan also spends a lot of time in his own head, lost among his memories — of his marriage and divorce, his precocious but troubled daughter, his suicidal neighbor, his career as a salesman and as a job-killing exec at the Schwinn Bicycle Company. This is a homo americanus, once a go-getting breadwinner, now making his way through a world that is becoming increasingly abstract and vaporous. His ambitions and passions have vanished. Nobody builds things with their hands anymore, we’re told; they’re no longer tied to the land, or to one another, or really to much of anything except growing mountains of debt.
Alan is both a victim and an enabler: Once the guy who helped ship jobs to China, he’s now at the end of his professional rope, competing with the Chinese himself. Hanks is ideally cast here as an affable guy simultaneously bemused and nervous about his own alienation. He laughs about the fact that nobody gets his Lawrence of Arabia jokes, but we can tell that he’s secretly terrified, that their silence reminds him he's out of step with everything around him.
Tykwer sublimates what Eggers made explicit: the joblessness, the debt, the isolation. He knows the power of an image, a gesture, a brief exchange, so he captures those social themes in flashes, which ironically gives them new power. We get glimpses of the day when Alan had to tell a factory full of Schwinn employees that their jobs were being shipped overseas. Then, late in the film, we see the magic that Alan is now selling: the promise of hologram teleconferencing for the wealthy and powerful.
Nobody need ever be in the same room again for bad news or confrontation: As one of Alan’s co-workers says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but holograms can never hurt me.” A hologram, in an imaginary city, for a king who’s never there. It may start with a big burst of energy, but this is a sad, somber film about a world that’s slowly, knowingly losing touch with the real.