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New Release Review - A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING

An American businessman attempts to strike a deal with the King of Saudi Arabia.





Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Tom Tykwer

Starring: Tom Hanks, Alexander Black, Sarita Choudhury, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Tom Skerritt



Though written and directed by Tom Tykwer, a filmmaker often accused of style over substance, A Hologram for the King is exactly the sort of movie you might expect from someone like Lasse Hallstrom, another European who began life as a somewhat celebrated auteur only to find himself in the realms of journeyman mediocrity.



Following Captain Phillips and Bridge of Spies, with A Hologram for the King, Tom Hanks completes a trilogy of movies in which he plays middle-aged American men struggling to communicate and negotiate with pesky foreigners. The difference here is that while the first two movies saw 'America's favourite actor' play somewhat noble figures, his protagonist here is quite reprehensible. Trouble is, the movie, adapted from Dave Eggers' novel, seems to believe he's a noble figure.



Said protagonist is Alan Clay, an American businessman whose company has developed revolutionary technology that allows for holographic phone calls. As we learn during an embarrassingly cheesy dream sequence in which Alan sings the lyrics of Talking Heads' 'Once in a Lifetime', he's recently lost his beautiful house, his beautiful car and his beautiful wife, and is pretty down in the dumps. He's none too happy then to be sent off to Saudi Arabia to pitch the tech to that country's King.

What ensues is a classic/derivative tale of a man finding himself in the last place he would ever look, as Alan initially struggles to fit in with Saudi Arabian society until he falls for an improbably feisty female Saudi doctor (played of course by a non-Saudi, English actress Sarita Choudhury). Along the way he befriends an extroverted cabbie (a Saudi played by charismatic but unconvincingly Arabic white American actor Alexander Black), and rejects the advances of a stereotypically sexually aggressive Scandinavian (Sidse Babett Knudsen). He also pratfalls every time he attempts to sit down, in a recurring gag that Adam Sandler would reject for being too obvious.



Though written and directed by Tom Tykwer, a filmmaker often accused of style over substance, A Hologram for the King is exactly the sort of movie you might expect from someone like Lasse Hallstrom, another European who began life as a somewhat celebrated auteur only to find himself in the realms of journeyman mediocrity. The movie almost plays like a remake of Hallstrom's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Both films feature western protagonists suffering existential crises and finding love in the midst of attempting to strike a deal with a Middle Eastern dictator. The protagonists of both are insufferable narcissists who blame everyone else for their problems; here, according to Clay, everything is the fault of the Chinese. Neither film has the balls to comment on the oppressive nature of the regimes in question, and at times A Hologram for the King resembles a corporate video designed to convince Americans to invest in Saudi Arabia.

Where the movie stands on the disgusting rule of the Saudi regime is impossible to figure out. Clay seems non-plussed when he learns of public executions, which leads us to wonder how anyone his age wouldn't be aware of this barbaric practice. His treatment of Knudsen's horribly written Danish predator amounts to a cruel piece of slut shaming, though he's perfectly happy when Choudhury's liberated (!) doctor takes him for a topless swim and hops into bed straight after, despite the pair only having met twice before (yes, a Saudi woman!). It's impossible to warm to Alan, despite the best efforts of the always affable Hanks.



Tykwer's film is as shallow as a glass of vodka in a Riyadh café, and the only message I could decipher was "Saudi Arabia has its problems, but at least it's not China!" For a more honest and less propagandist take on life in Saudi Arabia, I suggest watching Haifaa Al-Mansour's Wadjda, a film bravely made against the odds by its female director. After watching that movie you'll be filled with rage towards the Saudi regime, not towards the film itself, as is the case here.
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