For a movie starring one of the last real Movie Stars, A Hologram for the King sure did fly under the radar. Based on the Dave Eggers’ novel of the same name, Hologram reunites Tom Hanks and Cloud Atlas co-director Tom Tykwer in the kind of movie that would have been a sure thing twenty years ago but now you can’t pay people to see in theaters. It feels like a minor work in the Tom Hanks oeuvre, but it will probably find a comfortable niche over time because it’s got enough gloss applied to look impressive, and is unchallenging enough to not actually make you think. It does make for great background noise while you nap in your cozy chair.
Hanks stars as Alan, a sad-sack failure struggling with the fear of Baby Boomers everywhere—the creeping sense that the world doesn’t actually revolve around you. There’s a fairly clever bit off the top set to the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”—as sung by Tom Hanks! Truly a delight, showing us the downward spiral of Alan’s life, bringing him to the point where he is divorced, broke, and desperate for one last shot to save his American Dream… but nothing in the rest of the movie lives up to that one montage. His last ditch effort to save his floundering career—and by extension, his floundering life—takes him to Saudi Arabia (played by Morocco) to try and sell a futuristic conference calling platform that uses holograms to the king (thus the title).
Eggers’ novel has a meditative-bordering-on-melancholy tone, but Tykwer, who adapted it himself, focuses on the fish-out-of-water comedy and budding romance between Alan and a Saudi doctor, Zahra (Sarita Choudhury). It makes for an odd tonal clash that never quite resolves, as the movie almost willfully ignores the richer subtext in favor of wacky pratfalls. And Hanks’s performance never really locks into place, making this a rare misfire in his canon. Even in less-good movies you can count on him to deliver, but here he almost feels miscast. There are inevitable comparisons to Ishtar to be made, but at least Ishtar was trying to be something. Hologram doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be anything except inoffensive.
Hologram looks pretty enough, though, and Tykwer and his regular collaborator Frank Griebe come up with some lovely imagery of deserts and empty cityscapes. And certainly the actors are all applying themselves. It’s a very professional movie, made professionally by professionals, it just doesn’t have any real heft. A movie that could be about the myth of the American Dream, the existential panic that sets in as one generation is pushed aside to make room for another, and/or the dehumanizing effects of globalization is instead just another “white guy finds himself in the east” story. This version of Hologram is the most toothless possible adaptation. It’s very…milquetoast. Between this and Jem and the Holograms, it’s been a bad year at the movies for holograms.
Attached - Tom Hanks at an event last night in Beverly Hills and at the London premiere of A Hologram for the King late last month.