A Hologram for the King (2016)

  • Time: 97 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Tom Tykwer
  • Cast: Tom Hanks, Tom Skerritt, Sarita Choudhury


A failed American businessman looks to recoup his losses by traveling to Saudi Arabia and selling his idea to a wealthy monarch.


  • This might have been titled Rebirth of a Salesman. The new Willy Low-man is Alan Clay, i.e. the quintessential man. Tom Hanks as the current representative American doesn’t just have feet of clay; he is entirely vulnerable and crumbling.
    Alan was reduced back to sales after his management ruined his old bike-making company. When he shifted his manufacturing to cheaper China they stole his models and began making their own bikes — but better and cheaper — and stole the industry.
    He still flashes back to having to announce his US factory’s closure, for which his father has still not forgiven him. A camping story recalls the father’s lesson in self-reliance. By outsourcing its manufacturing Alan/America lost that essential value. No longer independent the once-powerful Alan/America suffers indignities and frustrations by having to go cap in hand to try to salvage a future by submission to an alien and antipathetic culture, i.e. Saudi Arabia.
    The failed businessman also failed domestically, of course. His wife divorced him (for “not seeing the big picture”). He still has a tenuous relationship with his 20ish daughter — but he feels guilty for not being able to support her, to pay for her college, to provide for her future.
    As befits a psychological analysis of America, the opening scene is Alan’s dream. While he glibly offers a hearty pitch (product indeterminate so irrelevant), the key elements of his life explode in puffs of pink smoke behind him: his house, his wife, etc. He’s flying to the Saudis where his new company depends on his selling the king on their new IT program for their plan to urbanize a desert.
    The ensuing comedy derives from the fumblings of a stranger in a strange land. He can’t adjust to the culture any more than to the time-lag. So he sleeps through his appointment times, only to find it doesn’t matter. He was stood up anyway. He stumbles into meeting his elusive contact only to be dumped by him again. The guy lets him drive his flashy Audi but only because the American is no longer in the global driver’s seat. The privilege is a taunt.
    Obviously the key metaphor is the hologram of the title. Alan finally manages to show the king his company’s impressive holography, where a “real” character interacts with a virtual figure. He creates the continuum between reality and illusion, substance and image, power and pretence. Despite the perfect presentation the Chinese beat Alan out again.
    Though holography is the new, ultimate force of image-making, America has always defined itself by fabricated images. That’s how Arthur Miller characterized his Loman, who taught his son the false importance of being “well-liked” and soared into failure with his suitcase and a smile. Falling for the image is the real failure to see the big picture.
    Here the past image, the lost glory, is the Schwann bike, Alan’s old company. The bike evokes America’s lost station in the world, its mythic past of innocence, optimism, when it was a world power with clean hands and an unlimited future. Of course that was as illusory as the hologram.
    The Danish Embassy party is an orgiastic release from the Saudi restrictions. Yet Alan is as out of his element there as in the Saudi culture. Its noise, fever and license seem like another dream. He declines the woman’s offer of sex out of an uncertain mix of his purity and impotence.
    Alan tries to negotiate the mysteries of the foreign culture. He’s thrown by his driver’s command of US pop music. He misses the banned booze — and suffers even more when he gets some. He’s especially at sea with the differences in gender issues. In a climactic paradox the woman doctor swims topless with him — in order to divert suspicion! From behind, a topless woman and a man look the same, you see. The underwater frolic seems another dream, the positive replacement of the first.
    In a side episode Alan has to deal with a growth on his back. It’s an image of a burden, a threat that proves benign. In a drunken initiative he tries to cut it out himself, another failed self-reliance. He finally has it removed by his woman doctor, who returns to lance his malignant love-life as well.
    If the romantic happy ending seems a bit forced and implausible — that’s because it is. This cross-cultural relationship is our anodyne, our relief from reality, another version of the false image of domestic bliss Alan will be offering his clients when he sells them the new apartments yet to be built on the Saudi sands.
    In that respect the entire film is a carefully selected image of Saudi Arabia. It’s defined by its massive population, its alien dress and manners, its fervid religiosity, and its striking power. When someone decides to help Alan all his problems are immediately addressed. The huge and opulent buildings flash the new Muslim power, which dwarfs the American and leaves him helplessly dependent.
    The film frames out any suggestion of the Saudis’ support of terrorism, especially 9/11, and its current political play as a counterforce to the even more disruptive Iran. But that’s fine. The connotations remain, especially as we see how the Saudi businessman plays his American partner. Spelling out that political reality would probably have been too big a boil for the back of this satiric and pointed comedy to bear.

  • “How did I get here?” goes one lyric in the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” the song played during the dream sequence that kicks off Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King. For businessman Alan Clay (Tom Hanks), en route to Saudi Arabia to pitch his company’s holographic teleconferencing system to the country’s king, “here” is more than simply finding himself a stranger in a strange land. “Here” is also discovering himself adrift at a time in his life when he should be ever more anchored.

    A Hologram for the King is both a character study and a sideways commentary on culture clashes with stripes of Death of a Salesman, Groundhog Day, Eat Pray Love, and the myth of Sisyphus in its narrative DNA. Clay is a salesman, still essentially selling door to door after all these years, and he needs this sale. His boss hectors him about closing the deal. His father (Tom Skerritt), a retired factory worker, carps about jobs being outsourced abroad. His ex-wife harps on him about paying his daughter’s college tuition. His daughter (Tracey Fairaway) seems to the only source of kindness and comfort, assuring him that things will work out.

    His failures, both past and present, weigh on him, possibly manifesting itself in the cyst that has developed on his back. Failure appears to be on the horizon as well – plagued by jet lag, he constantly misses the shuttle that will take him to the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade, a fictionalised version of King Abdullah Economic City, and has to rely on the services of a genial driver named Yousef (Alexander Black), who loves American pop music and once studied in Alabama, to chauffeur him to meetings that never happen. Clay’s team has been housed in an outdoor tent with no air-conditioning and no Wi-Fi connection. The king is everywhere but where he’s supposed to be; none of his aides can provide Clay with concrete answers as to his arrival. One Danish payroll contractor named Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen) shares that the ruler hasn’t made an appearance in at least 18 months. Day in and day out, it’s the same story.

    The holding pattern extends to his state of mind. He gently turns down Hanne’s sexual overtures, though not the forbidden bottle of alcohol she presents to him as a gift. Meeting with Zahra Hakem (Sarita Choudhury), a Saudi doctor who treats the cyst and a later panic attack, he confides that he feels depleted and directionless. His ensuing romance with Zahra is borne out of a shared loneliness and Hanks and Choudhury let it unfold with a lilting loveliness that mark it as one of the main reasons to see this frequently problematic film. (Their underwater scene recalls Splash, another instance where Hanks’ character is saved by a foreigner, albeit a mermaid.)

    There have been many films where the wonder is in the wandering, but A Hologram for the King is an especially meandering affair. Tykwer employs his trademark visual inventiveness to stave off viewer disinterest. He and cinematographer Frank Griebe concoct compositions that are crystalline, dreamlike, and frequently comical in their contrasting elements (the city waiting to be built resembling a jigsaw puzzle with a host of missing pieces) further adding to Clay’s sense of disorientation and isolation. There are touches of whimsy throughout, which offset the story’s more sobersided undertow, but there’s no concealing the fact that the beautiful imagery and vignette-like moments never congeal into a whole.

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