When an American salesman travels to Saudi Arabia to sell technology to The King, can he overcome significant cultural differences in order to make the deal?
Alan (Hanks) has both his career and personal life on the line: his employer is sending him on an extended trip to Saudi Arabia in order to pitch their new cutting-edge hologram technology for online conferencing. Given that his own boss doesn’t even have a great deal of confidence in Alan’s ability to make this deal, he’s under considerable stress. At the same time, he’s recently divorced and experiencing some financial setbacks that, among other things, have forced his daughter to put her college education temporarily on hold, much to Alan’s consternation and embarrassment.
Once in Saudi Arabia, Alan encounters all kinds of problems. To start with, he consistently misses the shuttle that would take him to the government offices he’s supposed to visit and must therefore hire a driver (Alexander Black) to transport him. But even when Alan is at the office, he faces substantial resistance: his IT Team isn’t being treated particularly well and the executives that are his points of contact constantly evade him, either intentionally or coincidentally; of particular concern is the Saudi King, crucial to making the final decision, and he’s nowhere in sight. The best Alan can manage is to befriend the company’s payroll manager Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who apparently has the hots for him.
And just what exactly is that lump on Alan’s back, anyway? Showering in his hotel room, he’s alarmed by this growth. As if he doesn’t already have enough to worry about, now his health is at issue. Alan sees a local physician, Zahra (Sarita Choudhury), who assures him it’s only a cyst, which she can easily remove. After follow-up visits, they soon form an affinity and start seeing each other outside office hours. Meanwhile, with the whereabouts of the Saudi King still very much up in the air, will Alan’s presentation ever actually occur or has this entire venture been a colossal waste of time?
Without a doubt, the best part of “A Hologram For The King”, is its opening sequence where Hanks performs his own version of The Talking Heads’ classic, “Once In A Lifetime”. It is a promising start on a number of levels; for one thing, it’s surreal and a naturally funny Hanks really takes advantage of its inherently humorous aspects. Also, the lyrics to the song portend the overarching theme of the movie itself. While it may be a bit harsh to say that the film goes downhill from there, it’s certainly fair to say that nothing that comes thereafter quite lives up to that first scene.
If “A Hologram For The King” is salvageable at all – and there’s a debate for you – it is through the performance of Hanks, The Everyman of American motion pictures. There is a substantial dark side to this movie, but Hanks’ comedic talents are able to balance it throughout. The film tries to pose the question of how to successfully overcome a culture clash. However, the bigger question is one that is asked both by and about the protagonist: “What happens when you’re nearing retirement and you suddenly realize your life has turned you into the loser you never thought you’d be?” Combine that with the fish-out-of-water theme and it’s difficult not to root for Hanks’ character.
Because there are multiple plotlines in “A Hologram For The King” – the various conflicts in Alan’s personal life as well as the goals set in his professional life – they all need to get resolved to one extent or another by the conclusion. Although this happens, the plausibility of some of the resolutions may be called into question. While some may appear realistic on one hand, there are others that come off as a little too contrived and convenient. It may be something of a stretch to say that all the various messes get cleaned up in the end, how they get cleaned up may be dubious – once again, perhaps the only thing that could allow viewers to suspend their disbelief is the mere fact that it is Everyman Tom Hanks.