I have a special bond with German filmmaker Tom Tykwer. I say this not because I have enjoyed every film he has made (though I have) or because three of his films are in my all-time top 100 (each of those was my favourite film of the year); I say this because three of my favourite Tykwer films (including two of those referred to above) were panned by most film critics. So the fact that Tykwer’s new film, A Hologram for the King, has received mostly mediocre reviews hardly served to scare me off or even lower my expectations. And while A Hologram for the King, which is based on the novel by Dave Eggers, won’t be my favourite film of 2016, it did not disappoint.
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 work isn’t going well either and his life feels like a rollercoaster. 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 he 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 eighteen 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 SA. Does Alan have cancer on top of all his other problems? Is his stress overwhelming his body or is he spending too much time with Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the Danish woman in the office who is trying to be a little too helpful?
All of 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 (Tykwer wrote much of it himself) is very good and there are some interesting ideas lying just beneath the surface that I’m still trying to interpret.
A Hologram for the King is a gentle, quiet, sad and funny film, with some thoughtful comments on life, and I was delighted by almost every minute of it. Comedy-drama is not my favourite genre, but this one works for me. I recommend it to almost everyone (not to those who yawn at the mention of a gentle quiet film). A solid ***+. My mug is up and a place in my top ten of the year is not out of the question.