A Hologram for the King (2016) Movie Reviews

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Hologram for the King (2016)

A Hologram for the King (2016) Movie Reviews

"A Hologram for the King" is a two-dimensional imitation of Tom Hanks' normally multi-dimensional movies.
He is one of the most popular – and simply one of the best ever in his profession. Statistics prove it and he has the accolades to back it up. He has more hits and a higher percentage of hits than most in his profession could ever dream of. His successes also helped many others in their careers. Whether he walked or was running, he was rarely off base. In fact, he has the best on-base percentage in baseball history. I'm talking, of course, about Ted Williams, Boston Red Sox slugger, 1939-1942 and 1946-1960 (his career interrupted by World War II). Williams is close behind Babe Ruth in career home runs, slugging percentage and walks, has the highest career batting average in the past 100 years, the highest on-base percentage ever and his impressive RBI totals helped add to the run stats of many other players.

Who did you think I was talking about? Well, yeah, I guess that most of what I just said about Ted Williams is true about Oscar-winning actor-producer Tom Hanks as well. Hanks also has a remarkably high career batting average – at the box office, but even the best don't get a hit every single time. The comedy-drama "A Hologram for the King" (R, 1:37) is a rare whiff for one of our most popular actors.

Hanks is Alan Clay, a washed-up, put-upon Boston corporate salesman on a business trip to Saudi Arabia. Alan's father (Tom Skeritt) criticizes him, his ex-wife (Jane Perry) hounds him and his college-aged daughter (Tracey Fairaway) is caught in the middle. Alan's boss (Eric Myers) belittles him and makes unreasonable demands, like the exact time when the ruler of a Muslim country will sit down for a tech presentation.

Alan is in Saudi Arabia with a 3-person tech team from his company, hoping to sell the king a video teleconferencing system which features a hologram of the person on the other end of the call. The king is building a new business center out in the desert and Alan's team is in the exhibition hall waiting to hear when the king will stop by. The exhibition hall is a nearby tent where the air conditioning only works some of the time, the wi-fi doesn't work at all and there is no food. Alan's repeated trips over to the business center to find solutions are met with indifference and Alan grows increasingly frustrated.

Personally, Alan is having a hard time adjusting to his new surroundings – in every way imaginable. He gets some help with the obvious culture shock from his driver, Yousef (Alexander Black), a Saudi national who once lived in the U.S., orients Alan to the culture and provides the film's comic relief. Alan also has problems with oversleeping, finding a drink in a country where alcohol is officially banned and is occupied with concern about a mysterious new growth in the middle of his back. For that first one, he has Yousef, for the second, a very friendly Danish businesswoman (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and for the third, a female doctor (Indian actress Sarita Choudhury), with whom he would like to become friendlier.

"A Hologram for the King" may not sound like a lot of fun, but… it's even less fun that it sounds. Hanks is game, but after the movie's bizarre narrative opening (set to "Once in a Lifetime" by The Talking Heads) and a long period in which Hanks does little more than scowl, complain and look surprised and/or distressed, even watching Tom Hanks becomes tiresome. His signature charm doesn't show up until late in the film and by then it is too little too late. The supporting cast is solid, but not enough to adequately support Hanks, who gets walked at the plate, then appears winded as he rounds the cinematic bases.

Of course, it would help if the story were better. The film is based on Dave Eggers' 2012 novel (a National Book Award finalist) and was adapted by German writer-director Tom Tykwer, who also directs this film and previously collaborated with Hanks on 2012's disappointing "Cloud Atlas". This fish-out-of-water (and-in-the-desert) story follows a template similar to Bill Murray's 2015 "Rock the Kasbah" (which was more fun) and Tina Fey's 2016 "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" (which was funnier). Those movies were marginally enjoyable, but this one is less so. It also has elements similar to Hanks' "Cast Away" (2000), but is not as interesting. The climactic scene referred to in the title film's title is decidedly anti-climactic and the rest of the plot points are well-meaning but uninspiring. Of course, like baseball great Ted Williams, Hanks' reputation as one of the all-time greats in his field is well-deserved and secure, but I have to say that it feels like he struck out in his latest plate appearance. "C+"

A Film Out of Our Experience
The title of this movie didn't help market itself unless one had already seen the movie. That's a big problem, a movie title. Subsequently though this more substantive version of Lost in Translation (2003) that includes much more of a relational component offers up a pungent and enlightening as well as dramatic collision of two cultures. Along with a nice comedic tone with dramatic and sometimes fearful moments, Holograph does nicely with sustaining the audience's interest and revealing an entertaining, intriguing storyline about a wonderful but frustrating business opportunity in Saudi Arabia. This perhaps fictional behind the scenes look at Saudi culture is fascinating and the relational story lines are also quite compelling, if not perhaps completely believable.

Unlike Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Holograph offers a duality between strikingly different cultures. Unlike Roman Holiday (1953), Holograph offers a more equitable status between characters who are more identifiable to a average American audience while at the same time highlighting the delicate and sometimes comical and serious cultural barriers. Another culture clash movie, Fear and Trembling (2003) perhaps comes closest to the revelation and exposure of the intimate dynamics of the differences in ethnic behavior and attitudes. Fear and Trembling however is much more focused as a serious cultural study whereas Holograph is more fluid and mainstream Hollywood in its presentation but in a good way.

In sum, Holograph is an insightful and delightful look into the interactions between the personal cultural differences along with a basic meaningful human sameness undertone of invaluable importance.

Disappointing Treatment of Much-Praised Book
Not every comedy is for everyone (at least I think this was supposed to be a comedy). Last week I saw The Big Lebowski (1998) at the local movie theater. Packed. People in Lebowski t-shirts, people who raised hands to show they'd seen the movie five, ten, twenty times, people anticipating the laugh lines. Eighteen years from now, nothing like that will happen with this film from German director Tom Twyker. Tom Hanks is American businessman Alan Clay, whose marriage is over and whose career as a salesman is on the skids. In what appears to be a last chance at success, he's sent to Saudi Arabia to sell the king on a costly holographic teleconferencing system for a new city being built in the desert. He encounters bureaucratic delays, clandestine alcohol consumption, confounding cultural gaps, and unexpected romance. Where I messed up was in thinking, "Oh, Tom Hanks. He's always great." Someone so talented just wouldn't be in a mediocre film. Why would he? And, I thought, "Oh, Dave Eggers wrote the book it's based on. Got lots of praise for it too." For example, New York Times reviewer Pico Iyer called the book "an anguished investigation into how and where American self-confidence got lost and — in the central word another lonely expat uses for Alan— 'defeated.'" And the Boston Globe: "True genius." Someplace along the way, the promise of the book and Hanks got lost, and a more disjointed and implausible narrative is hard to imagine. When we're told that the crowds Hanks saw at a mosque were there because "that's where the executions are," it's hard to believe that a Saudi woman would take the very great risk of being alone with him, an American infidel. Hanks does get to drive a very sexy 2015 Audi R8, briefly. But even that isn't worth the ticket price.

American salesman negotiates strange Saudi culture
This might have been titled Rebirth of a Salesman. The new Willy Low-man is Alan Clay, i.e. the quintessential man. Tom Hanks as the current representative American doesn't just have feet of clay; he is entirely vulnerable and crumbling. 

Alan was reduced back to sales after his management ruined his old bike-making company. When he shifted his manufacturing to cheaper China they stole his models and began making their own bikes — but better and cheaper — and stole the industry. 

He still flashes back to having to announce his US factory's closure, for which his father has still not forgiven him. A camping story recalls the father's lesson in self-reliance. By outsourcing its manufacturing Alan/America lost that essential value. No longer independent the once-powerful Alan/America suffers indignities and frustrations by having to go cap in hand to try to salvage a future by submission to an alien and antipathetic culture, i.e. Saudi Arabia.

The failed businessman also failed domestically, of course. His wife divorced him (for "not seeing the big picture"). He still has a tenuous relationship with his 20ish daughter — but he feels guilty for not being able to support her, to pay for her college, to provide for her future.

As befits a psychological analysis of America, the opening scene is Alan's dream. While he glibly offers a hearty pitch (product indeterminate so irrelevant), the key elements of his life explode in puffs of pink smoke behind him: his house, his wife, etc. He's flying to the Saudis where his new company depends on his selling the king on their new IT program for their plan to urbanize a desert. 

The ensuing comedy derives from the fumblings of a stranger in a strange land. He can't adjust to the culture any more than to the time-lag. So he sleeps through his appointment times, only to find it doesn't matter. He was stood up anyway. He stumbles into meeting his elusive contact only to be dumped by him again. The guy lets him drive his flashy Audi but only because the American is no longer in the global driver's seat. The privilege is a taunt.

Obviously the key metaphor is the hologram of the title. Alan finally manages to show the king his company's impressive holography, where a "real" character interacts with a virtual figure. He creates the continuum between reality and illusion, substance and image, power and pretence. Despite the perfect presentation the Chinese beat Alan out again.

Though holography is the new, ultimate force of image-making, America has always defined itself by fabricated images. That's how Arthur Miller characterized his Loman, who taught his son the false importance of being "well-liked" and soared into failure with his suitcase and a smile. Falling for the image is the real failure to see the big picture.

Here the past image, the lost glory, is the Schwann bike, Alan's old company. The bike evokes America's lost station in the world, its mythic past of innocence, optimism, when it was a world power with clean hands and an unlimited future. Of course that was as illusory as the hologram. 

The Danish Embassy party is an orgiastic release from the Saudi restrictions. Yet Alan is as out of his element there as in the Saudi culture. Its noise, fever and license seem like another dream. He declines the woman's offer of sex out of an uncertain mix of his purity and impotence.

Alan tries to negotiate the mysteries of the foreign culture. He's thrown by his driver's command of US pop music. He misses the banned booze — and suffers even more when he gets some. He's especially at sea with the differences in gender issues. In a climactic paradox the woman doctor swims topless with him — in order to divert suspicion! From behind, a topless woman and a man look the same, you see. The underwater frolic seems another dream, the positive replacement of the first. 

In a side episode Alan has to deal with a growth on his back. It's an image of a burden, a threat that proves benign. In a drunken initiative he tries to cut it out himself, another failed self-reliance. He finally has it removed by his woman doctor, who returns to lance his malignant love-life as well. 

If the romantic happy ending seems a bit forced and implausible — that's because it is. This cross-cultural relationship is our anodyne, our relief from reality, another version of the false image of domestic bliss Alan will be offering his clients when he sells them the new apartments yet to be built on the Saudi sands. 

In that respect the entire film is a carefully selected image of Saudi Arabia. It's defined by its massive population, its alien dress and manners, its fervid religiosity, and its striking power. When someone decides to help Alan all his problems are immediately addressed. The huge and opulent buildings flash the new Muslim power, which dwarfs the American and leaves him helplessly dependent. 

The film frames out any suggestion of the Saudis' support of terrorism, especially 9/11, and its current political play as a counterforce to the even more disruptive Iran. But that's fine. The connotations remain, especially as we see how the Saudi businessman plays his American partner. Spelling out that political reality would probably have been too big a boil for the back of this satiric and pointed comedy to bear.

A Hologram for the King (2016) Movie Reviews 

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