As the credits rolled for Tom Tykwer’s “A Hologram for the King,” my friend and colleague Hubert Vigilla from over at Flixist leaned over and whispered, “This is the film Cameron Crowe has been trying to make for years.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “If Samuel Beckett had written the first act.”
I suspect many people might be put off from the film’s tonal whiplash. What begins as an Absurdist (in the theatrical sense) fever dream of capitalist anxiety and wounded masculinity evolves into a bubbly schmaltz in the last half hour. Alan Clay (Tom Hanks, modern American cinema’s iconic Everyman) is an IT salesman pitching a holographic communications system to the King of Saudi Arabia for the construction of a new city. Tykwer’s Saudi Arabia is a Kafkaesque nightmare, my favorite little detail being the various workers hired to sweep sand from desert highways. As one character quips, “We don’t have [labor] unions, we have Filipinos.”
Everything goes wrong with a clockwork precision. Alan discovers that his sales team has been banished to a stuffy tent in the desert with no food, air conditioning, or wi-fi. Both the King and Alan’s contact within Saudi Arabia are perpetually just one day away from arriving. As their secretary deadpans, “I’m SURE they’ll be here tomorrow.” To make matters worse, Alan’s life is falling apart. His malicious wife won’t stop harassing him, his daughter has to drop out of college for a semester since he can’t afford to pay her tuition anymore, and a large growth has sprouted on his back right above his spinal cord.
But the film does something unexpected: it actually watches Alan rebuild his life. Here’s where the Cameron Crowe angle comes in. He falls in love with a local surgeon played by Sarita Choudhury (and major props to the film for actually casting an age-appropriate actress opposite Hanks instead of casting a more traditional teenybopper), befriends a local driver, and regains his confidence after his growth is surgically removed. As incongruous as this might seem, “A Hologram for the King” earns its happy, optimistic ending. By the end we realize that the film isn’t the metaphor for America’s declining economic and cultural influence around the world we thought it would be. Instead it’s a highly personal story. The chaotic first half counter-intuitively makes the feel-good second half feel more authentic.
I would also like to point out that in this age of Hollywood white-washing “A Hologram for the King” features authentic Middle Eastern performers and one of the most respectful and dignified depictions of Islam I’ve seen in a recent mainstream film. It’s also one of the first, if not THE first, American film I’ve watched that suggests that it’s the West that needs the Middle East’s economic influence, not the other way around.
Rating: 7 out of 10