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Hologram for the King, A
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by Jay Seaver

"Two terrific Toms."
4 stars

The opening sequence of "A Hologram for the King" maybe isn't that clever - it's actually a pretty literal take on an on-the-nose pop song - but it hints at Tom Hanks in the sort of broadly comic performance that he mainly brings out for talk shows and the sort of energetic, unconventional filmmaking that got director Tom Tykwer international attention with "Run Lola Run". That bit doesn't last, but it pushes the film into a differently odd place that makes for a smart, charming, funny film.

Literally a different place, as American executive Alan Clay (Hanks) is heading for Saudi Arabia to pitch the king on his company providing the new King's Metropolis of Energy and Technology ("KMET") with its IT infrastructure, apparently on the basis of having once met the king's nephew. He's off his game in ways beyond jet-lag, unfortunately, coming off an ugly divorce and not sure what to make of a lump on his back. He keeps missing his shuttle from Jedda to KMET and getting rides from Yousef (Alexander Black), a young man whose ancient car is a stark contrast to the opulent surroundings. Out there, Alan's team is in a tent without wifi or air conditioning, the man who can solve those problems is nowhere to be found, and for all anyone knows, it could be months before the king makes a visit.

I doubt that either this film or the David Eggers novel that Tykwer adapts gives anything close to a true portrait of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia - it's too big a place to fit - but it's probably a fair impression of how confounding the place must seem to an American. As seen here, it's a paradoxical mix of rigorous, exclusive tradition and a concerted effort to build a modern nation that is part of a larger world from nothing. Tykwer has a sharp eye for large, empty spaces nested inside one another - the vast desert will surround palatial buildings, which themselves contain vast reception areas or, in a hospital, a blindingly white operating theater with a tiny-seeming bed in the center. The newness of everything else is a sharp contrast to Yousef's beat-up old car, as is the westernized look of much in the cities compared to Yousef's homestead.

It's a bit unusual for the film's setting to parallel an outsider main character, but that's the way it goes, with the KSA's seeming uncertainty on what it is going to be matching Alan's doubts about himself. Tom Hanks makes that uncertainty a constant something eating at Alan even before he comes clean about it, always looking around nervously even when he's also staring in awe. Alongside his anxiety, though, is the sort of gravel-voiced incredulity that he does better than nearly anybody, getting big laughs out of the moments when the difficulty of the place pushes Alan from nervous trepidation to taking action. It's the sort of performance that lets the crew make Lewis Rainer (playing a young Alan) up as a dead ringer for Hanks circa Big and have it fit.

Though it's Hanks's movie, he's got a nice group of people to work alongside, most notably Alexander Black, whose Yousef is a bit of a goofball sidekick with moments of impresses sincerity; Black captures the way that a man will consider himself part of the modern world and then find himself a bit more traditional than he'd believed. But there's also great work from Sarita Choudhury as the doctor who looks after an ailing Alan and Tom Skerritt as Alan's disapproving father, Sidse Babett Knudsen as a Danish manager at KMET, and Tracey Fairaway as the Alan's daughter.

She appears mostly in flashback, and the way Tykwer handles those is impressive; they genuinely feel like Alan's mind jumping to the past and then back to the present rather than a director dropping something objective into the movie when it's needed, slick editing that keeps the film firmly rooted in the present even if it does spend a fair amount of time in the past. He does a fair job of nudging the film from being about Alan as a stranger in a strange land to dealing with the man's more personal unease, and in the process manages to handle the cultural differences carefully, recognizing their frequent unfairness and having them bother the western characters but never implying that the Saudis are flash or ignorant for being a part of this different system.

It's enough of a drift that, by the end, it may not seem quite right to the audience - "A Hologram for the King" doesn't finish as the film that excites at the start, and there are elements toward the end that may not sit completely perfectly. Even as that happens, the film still has great work from its two Toms (and, heck, Tom Skerritt as well), and should get a bit more attention than it has for that.

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originally posted: 04/29/16 14:14:30
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  22-Apr-2016 (R)
  DVD: 09-Aug-2016

  20-May-2016 (12A)

  DVD: 09-Aug-2016

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