This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
“A Hologram for the King” opens with a new greatest hits moment in Tom Hanks acting history. Set to “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads, he’s shown as a business man whose life has become a joke. As he talk-sings the opening lyrics à la William Shatner ("How did I get here?") the film mixes images of his house, car and wife going up in purple smoke with a close-up of him riding a roller coaster, looking blankly at the camera. Hanks' filmography is full of numerous mainstream performances, but this off-beat one takes viewers back to watching him meander around Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal,” or stuck at a crossroads in Robert Zemeckis’ “Cast Away.” As Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of David Eggers’ novel proves, it’s entertainment just to stare back at Hanks.
Here’s a reasonably-sized star vehicle that finds exciting purpose in presenting an existential crisis. The opening sequence is a dream he has on a plane while flying to Saudi Arabia, leaving behind his past life of tanking the Schwinn company when he outsourced hundreds of American jobs. Hoping to make the money to pay for his daughter's college tuition, Hanks' Alan Clay is now trying to sell a hologram contract to the king of Saudi Arabia, who wants to build a city in the middle of the desert that will populate 1.5 million people by 2025. The irony is hard to resist from the beginning—a former failure of empathy, now selling a machine for impersonal business, to an enterprise that may as well be a mirage, for a king who never shows up. Alan has to travel an hour every morning from the city to the project's headquarters, only for a receptionist to tell him that the king is not in. The strange stresses pile up as his business trip becomes a seemingly endless, yet highly amusing farce: Alan's small tech team is stored in a tent but have no Wi-Fi, AC or food. Perhaps by no coincidence, a giant bump suddenly appears on Alan's back.
The cycle that the king's indifference places Alan into leads to a poignant truth behind our own dark clouds, our partial responsibility to push back against the negative forces of nature overwhelming us. Clay misses his shuttle to the king's headquarters because he somehow oversleeps each morning, which in turn forces him to call upon his driver/impromptu cultural guide Yousef (Alexander Black). Almost midway into the film, when Alan decides to defy the receptionist's demand to not venture past the lobby, he breaks the cycle. He gets upstairs and people know his name, as if they had been expecting him to sneak up there all along; actions against his bump yield similar results. In a feat of invested storytelling and performance, Tykwer’s strange movie makes these minor changes seem huge.
It’s a disappointment, then, when "A Hologram for the King" transitions this anti-fatalism into a succession of epiphanies you can get wholesale. As the narrative changes from a fascinating circle to a flat journey for Alan to find his new self, it drags to metaphorical checkpoints, like when Yousef drives Alan off a different path, and later when Alan is face-to-face with a wolf that is about to attack some sheep. As it slowly devolves into another mid-life-crisis-abroad tale, the movie’s charm starts to evaporate.