In the first seconds of “A Hologram for the King,” director Tom Tykwer flings the audience into a surreal sequence in which Tom Hanks is performing a version of the old Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime.”
As Hanks advances on the camera, asking himself how he happened to get his “beautiful house” and his “beautiful wife,” each vanishes into blue smoke. And then, just as we’re getting used to this rock video approach and enjoying it, Tykwer breaks it off and shows Hanks on an airplane being startled awake by the Muslim call to prayer.
It’s a great opening. Tykwer, oozing confidence, prepares his audience for the unconventional, all the while conveying two important pieces of information: This is about an American traveling to the Middle East on business. And this is the story of a man who finds himself at midlife wondering about his path, asking the big life questions and not having a clue.
“A Hologram for the King” has great energy and also a languorous, lived-in quality. Adapted by Tykwer from the Dave Eggers novel, the movie locates us in a place — Saudi Arabia — and without seeming to be trying, makes us want to stay. It finds a rhythm and engages us in the struggle of the central character, so much so that it feels as if we might happily keep watching for three hours, not just 97 minutes.
It’s the story of a decent man who needs to pull off a deal. An IT specialist, he has been invited by the government of Saudi Arabia to show his company’s hologram technology to the king. If he makes the sale and gets the commission, everything will be OK. But for now, his boss doubts him, his divorce is costing him money and his devoted daughter had to temporarily leave college because he couldn’t pay the tuition.
Because Tykwer is a smart director and because Hanks is one of the best screen actors in the world, Hanks doesn’t do the obvious thing here. He doesn’t play the character’s desperation, not for one second. Rather he plays the professionalism of an executive salesman.
He plays a fellow whose job is to conceal his worries and make sure nobody else worries, not the boss above him nor the employees below him. He plays someone who knows the value of a sunny attitude, of a crisp white shirt and of always remembering the other fellow’s name. He also plays the discombobulation and irritation that come of realizing that all his assets of personality and disposition might not help one bit.
It’s one businessman’s story, but it’s bigger than that. There’s the sense that this is the story of the American businessman competing in a global climate that’s cold to the persuasive charm of American cheerfulness and interested in money entirely and in quality not at all.
Alan (Hanks), we are told, previously worked for Schwinn bicycles, a once-great company that relocated its factories overseas and eventually was sold off to the Chinese. Tykwer, in a deft touch that makes up perhaps just one second of screen time, flashes back to something in Alan’s memory, the moment in which he stood before the workers in Schwinn’s American plant and told them that their jobs were gone.
That one second replicates the way the mind works, how pictures you can’t forget and don’t want to remember have a way of presenting themselves in brief bursts, immediately suppressed. Such touches throughout “Hologram” indicate a director in harmony with his subject and free in his inspiration, who has access to everything in his arsenal and knows what to use and when.
Hanks is ideal for the central role, both in his essence and his skill. With Hanks, you don’t have to explain to the audience that this is a good guy and you need to care about him. His casting does that automatically. Hanks does the rest.
Everyone else is up to his level, from the mysterious Saudi businessmen to the two women who cross his path, a Danish woman working in the kingdom (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and a Saudi doctor (Sarita Choudhury) with Western tendencies. It’s a strange thing: “A Hologram for the King” is mostly about a series of nuisances, annoyances and stresses, and yet it’s a pleasure from beginning to end.
‘A Hologram for the King’
Rated R. Time: 1:37.