The new oddity by Tom Tykwer, A Hologram For The King, is a complete disaster. It meanders. It dodges. It’s so incoherent thematically, tonally and formally that in some instances it feels like Rock The Kasbah meets Inherent Vice. Or maybe Run Lola Run (another Tykwer film) in a world similar to Charlie Wilson’s War? Who knows? It’s sometimes eerie, sometimes stylish, sometimes unassured, sometimes kitschy, but somehow, almost always interesting. The film can be so resolute in its madcap vision you begin to question that this is all as it’s supposed to be.
A Hologram For The King, based on a novel by Dave Eggers, opens with an ironic infomercial for globalized capitalism, as it were. Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) recites Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” directly into the camera, while the sub-prime mortgage crisis vaporizes his car, house and wife in seconds. In search of the American Dream, Alan embarks to a new land of opportunity, Saudi Arabia, where he is trying to close out a contract to sell the king holographic technology for an eerie development in the middle of the desert. With each passing day, Alan wakes up a few minutes or hours later, the cyst on his back becomes increasingly more bothersome and the inner workings of this new development are even sketchier. He begins to have waking nightmares about his daughter that can’t afford to go to college, the men he laid off at a factory and his boss that is constantly pestering him to close this deal with the king. Alan is slowly deteriorating as a mystery seems to be unspooling.
When a trailer was released for this film in March, there was outrage against the representation of Saudi Arabia as a caricature of a fundamentalist state. “This is where they perform the executions,” Alan’s driver, jokingly tells him. A Hologram For The King, in a manner far from subtle, deconstructs the stereotypes from the Arabs and Americans point of view. An instance later in the film, Alan is approached by a man who asks if he works for the CIA. “Only part time,” he tells the frightened man.
Through all of the tangents, we are getting more of a sense of an ecosystem, a world corrupted underhanded deals and invisible power structures, than the didactic surface would lead us to believe. What is often more interesting in A Hologram For The King is not the archetypal characters and the on-the-nose conflicts, but the singular yet hybridized world in which the film operates. Saudi Arabia is wealthy and modernized but still ruled by sexist and archaic laws. Underneath this predominant dogma is the forming of a new religion, one built on the spreading of capital, suppressing certain groups and privileging others. A Hologram For The King has rich nuances, barely drawing attention to them. A lingerie store with scantily clad women on an advertisement is only feet away from oppressed women who are forced to be fully veiled. An enthusiastically polite secretary is the front for shady business transactions that seem to take place just outside the frame. There are strict bans on liquor yet in the underbelly of the country, hidden away in a gated, luxurious home, is a decadent party with grotesque, white business-types. These are odd images, but one in particular stands out. Standing in a comfortable, air-conditioned office, Alan talks to the mysterious manager of the project. In the distance, behind crystal clear glass and a massive expanse of a vapid desert, a haze of buildings rest in the background. The development is as ominous as a Bond villain’s hideout.
Alas, an intriguing film where the sources of conflict are invisible and all we see are the facades, devolves into a misguided romance between Alan and the female doctor that performed surgery on the lump. A film that has dabbled in the effects of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the impact of globalized capitalism on the working conditions inside Saudi Arabia, the personal weight of off-shoring American jobs, the hypocrisy behind the theocracy and the prejudices that Saudis have for Americans and Americans for Saudis, devolves into a travel advertisement, a romance featuring two wealthy, good-looking (but age-appropriate) lovers in a fancy home with a nearby, glistening lake. The film’s contradictions seem to turn inward, from an uncompromisingly disjointed narrative with a detailed world to an unearned romance that is realized in broad strokes.
It’s hard to say A Hologram For The King is about anything. It talks around issues. It contradicts itself. It implies a plot and steps around it for a feel-good conclusion. If you had a screenplay, shredded every second page and played 52 pick-up with all the other ones, it might turn out something like this: A film with translucent ideas where all you can grasp is thin air.