Tom Hanks plays a man in the midst of an existential crisis, looking to regain his foothold on life while in a foreign land, in this film written and directed by Tom Tykwer. Based on a 2012 novel of the same name by Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King centers on Alan Clay, an IT salesman hoping to close a lucrative deal with the king of Saudi Arabia for a holographic conferencing system. Clay's contacts and potential clients, including the king himself, are repeated no-shows, and it's consistently emphasized that Clay isn't really all there, either: He resorts to self-pity and solitary drinking to deal with his feelings with helplessness and frustration, caused by a painful divorce, a previous botched deal that led to widespread outsourcing at his company, and his inability to pay for his doting daughter's school tuition. A painful-looking cyst near his spine (which he disastrously tries to lance at one point) serves as a literal hump on his back. However, his outlook begins to change as he befriends his spacey yet thoughtful taxi driver Yousef (an outstanding performance by newcomer Alexander Black), as well as an attractive, cerebral doctor named Zahra (Sarita Choudhury). Will Clay be able to step up to the plate for a second chance at personal and professional contentment?
The film certainly takes some bold swings, offering a few moments of surreal imagery as it depicts Clay's grim worldview and perception of his own reality. But Tykwer loses control of the narrative's coherence at points, as the movie clumsily falls over itself trying to underline Clay's internal despair and his Willy Loman-esque attempts to keep a stiff upper lip despite mounting pressures and failures. At least the film looks unequivocally beautiful, and the acting is uniformly strong: Black is a true find as Yousef, managing to steal scenes using a goofy brand of charisma, and Hanks' superb work here as a man fluctuating between dejected, detached, and bemused shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with his previous roles.
Yet similarly assured turns from Choudhury and Sidse Babett Knudsen, the latter playing a Danish businesswoman who attempts to seduce Clay, are wasted here. Both characters are charming in their own right, but they seem to exist only to react to the protagonist's issues and mental state. The way that Knudsen is shuttled in and out of the plot is befuddling, as is the decision to have Clay take an abrupt detour to a mountain hideout with Yousef -- it goes nowhere and does almost nothing to service the overall story.
The picture does contain some truly interesting moments of dark humor, although the proceedings turn clumsy and cloying when it aims for belly laughs or moments of father/daughter warmth. And the lack of actual Middle Eastern actors in this movie (Black, for example, is a native New Yorker) is the latest example of a troubling racial blind spot in Hollywood. At a time when films from around the world are earning well-deserved recognition, it's disappointing that U.S. cinema remains so resistant to diverse casting.
Based on its prevalent use of Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" and its beating us over the head with Clay's frequent musings, A Hologram for the King seems to assert that even if life has its ups and downs, it's never too late to find fulfillment. There's nothing wrong with this philosophy, and the film does take its time while weaving its tale. Its focus on isolation, both globally and spiritually, makes for individually affecting moments. But these glimpses into Clay's desperation never lead to a truly substantial epiphany, and viewers will ultimately feel as lost at the movie's conclusion as the main character does at its opening.