Dave Eggers’s 2012 novel A Hologram for the King is a terse and clumsily elegiac peek into the mind of the obsolescent American everyman. The author’s Alan Clay has devoted a life to selling American-made wares and industrial good, but the book has him peddling a more abstract product (information technology) in a foreign land (Saudi Arabia). Struggling to finance his daughter’s college education, Alan is burdened by failed marriages and poor professional decisions, and all of his existential angst takes on a physical manifestation, in the form of a massive growth on the back of Alan’s neck. The globule between Alan’s shoulders might as well be the weight of the world as he attempts to sell a holographic video conferencing system, for use in a proposed economic development zone far out in the desert, to the King of Saudi Arabia. Alan has claimed an obscure connection to the king (he once met the man’s nephew) in order to finish the deal and restore his livelihood.
Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of A Hologram for the King is remarkably faithful, except in how it rather boldly transforms Eggers’s drama into a broad comedy. The film opens with a dream that plays like a bad commercial: To the tune of the Talking Heads’s “Once in a Lifetime,” Alan mocks the state of the American dream, watching his house and car disappear in poofs of purple smoke as he rides an endless rollercoaster. Though the film’s Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) remains a failure, he also remains a chipper salesman, leading his cadre of IT lackeys through the relentless obfuscation of the Saudi bureaucracy with a slightly demented plastered smile and can-do spirit.
Alan’s manic behavior is part and parcel with Tykwer’s approach to the material. Rather than heightening the sensation of being a stranger in a strange land, the filmmaker emphasizes the routine of Alan’s sojourn. In aggressively cut sequences, Alan greets a hotel concierge, empties piles of sand from his shoes, and retreats to a bottle of hooch illicitly obtained from a horny and free-spirited Dane (Sidse Babett Knudsen). After nights spent writing drunken emails to his daughter (Tracey Fairaway), Alan oversleeps and hires an English-speaking driver, Hakeem (Dhaffer L’Abidine), to take him from the city out into an undeveloped future city. At every turn, potentially striking images (a drive through a pilgrimage to Mecca, a large black banquet tent in the desert) seem flat and mundane.
The film always seems to be rushing through scenes in order to advance Alan’s story, but aside from a few visits to a soulful and beguiling female doctor (Sarita Choudhury), Tykwer only ever leads us to further distractions. There’s a bacchanalian party at the Finnish embassy, a trip to Hakeem’s family home, and a series of flashbacks to Alan’s divorce proceedings and his failed efforts to keep Schwinn manufacturing bicycles in America. These lurches made some sense in Eggers’s novel, as the author presented a constellation of people that Alan has disappointed, but neither Tykwer nor Hanks prove to be very invested in exploring the middle-class American psyche through Alan’s failings as a businessman and a father. Instead, every moment of levity in Eggers’s book becomes an opportunity for a goofy flight of whimsy. Tykwer’s better work (Run Lola Run, Heaven) arrives at its considerable style in the editing room, but A Hologram for the King’s busy structure feels like a flailing attempt to distract from the film’s slurry of mismatched tonal conceits.
Ultimately, the result plays out like a confused comedy of manners, set in a restrictive society, but populated by characters who represent a cosmopolitan mélange of cultural influences. Most of the film’s Saudi characters were educated in the West and seem casually impatient with their country’s strict laws regarding women and indecent behavior. Tykwer occasionally attempts to toss a note of discontent into the film’s cautiously optimistic globalized vision, but these efforts are haphazard. A Hologram for the King has no responsibility to present a rigorous portrayal of Saudi life, but the film is frustratingly disengaged from its setting. It smiles broadly through a maelstrom of economic upheaval as it arrives at its pat, happy ending, where the film becomes a sort of Eat Pray Love for the vanishing middle-class businessman.