Divorced, broke and unable to pay his daughter’s college tuition, Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) is introduced in an angst-filled, fantasy dream sequence, singing Talking Head’s “Once in a Lifetime.” Apparently chosen for this job because of some vague connection to the Royal family, Clay is an affable, middle-aged American businessman who arrives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, determined to sell a 3D holographic communications system to King Abdullah. Read on…
Jet-lagged, Clay oversleeps his first day on the job, forcing him to find a driver-for-hire, wise-cracking Yousef (comedian Alexander Black), to take him to the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade (KMET), where Clay and his clueless IT team of three millennials are stuck in a tent in the middle of a construction site surrounded by camel-strewn desert.
Disoriented, unsettled and impatient, Clay must not only deal with the obvious cultural differences he encounters in this eerie model city but also his existential loneliness and need to rediscover a sense of purpose.
It’s two-time Oscar-winner Tom Hanks’ heartfelt performance that propels your interest, particularly when a flashback reveals Clay’s father (Tom Skerritt) berating him for outsourcing of American jobs at the Schwinn Bicycle Company.
As days pass while waiting for the King or, at least, his liaison to arrive, Clay discovers a large cyst on his back; this metaphoric growth, he fears, is sapping his strength and vigor. Which leads him to seek help from a sympathetic Saudi physician, Zahra Hakem (Sarita Choudhury), as a subtle relationship develops.
Adapted from Dave Eggers’ 2012 novel by German writer/director Tom Twyker (“Run Lola Run,” “Cloud Atlas”), it’s a timely, if trifling allegory about malaise and globalization, not far removed from Jack Lemmon’s “Save the Tiger” (1973), Bill Murray’s “Lost in Translation” (2003) and Ewan MacGregor’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” (2011).
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “A Hologram for the King” is a strangely stylized, absurdist 6, so it’s not surprising that the epigraph comes from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”: “It is not every day that we are needed.”