Stories in which a tired protagonist finds their true purpose in a foreign land have been done to death in both novels and films. Occasionally it can be done well, but A Hologram For The King embodies the worst qualities, pairing a paper-thin plot and incomprehensible exposition with inferred judgement on different cultures. To really drive the knife in, it also made the adorable Tom Hanks unlikeable – how is that possible?
Hanks plays businessman Alan Clay, deep in mid-life pity and sent off to Saudi Arabia to sell a holographic meeting system to the king. Along the way, he meets a cheeky taxi driver (Alexander Black), a mysterious Danish lady (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and a beautiful female doctor Zahra (Sarita Choudhury). It should be noted that despite the setting, no actors from the Middle East actually appear to have any main roles in this film.
The plot is baffling- written by the director Tom Twkyer, the effect was perhaps meant to be dreamy but it comes across as exhausting, whilst the score works overtime to create tensions in scenes that really don’t deserve it. This film was based on a book of the same name by Dave Eggers and perhaps it inherits that style from the text or abridges it severely. Either way, it reads like the blurted out diary entries of a man wracked with self-pity. He refers to his past but you’ll have to work with incomplete flashbacks to build any kind of tangible character.
Don’t worry though, Alan Clay has much more value, acting as a kind of wise guide to the Saudi Arabian people, who are generally shown as misguided. It gets worse as A Hologram For The King takes one final turn in the last act. Much is made of Zahra, a female doctor that tends him in the film, who other characters constantly point out as unusual and who dresses conservatively.
A late twist finds Clay and Zahra falling for each other, leading to a highly uncomfortable scene in which the camera leers at the now naked woman in the sea. Afterwards, whilst still in Saudi Arabia and settled with Clay, the woman is now without her headscarf and in a loose, light dress.
Even at the end of the film, we’ve learned nothing about Zahra, we don’t know how she felt about her previous choices. Because she’s such an empty shell of a character, and particularly after the recent Burkini ban controversy in Cannes, this plot point (consciously or otherwise) infers the frequently seen Western view that these women must be liberated from conservative clothing, regardless of their opinion and its personal and cultural significance. It’s damn infuriating.
A Hologram For A King has a plot with as much substance as the technology that the protagonist tries to sell. Billed as a comedy-drama, it’s neither, and at it’s very worst, it views a different culture with a patronising, one-dimensional lens.
[rating=1] | Jen Scouler
Drama | USA, 2016 | 15 | Icon Film Distribution | 19th September 2016 (UK) | Dir.Tom Twkyer | Tom Hanks, Alexander Black, Sarita Choudhury,Sidse Babett Knudsen,Tom Skerritt | Buy: [DVD]