Tom Tykwer’s “A Hologram for the King” begins with what appears to be a music video.
Tom Hanks, in suit and tie, is moving through a suburban neighborhood singing the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” As he cover the song’s lyrics — “You may find yourself looking for your large automobile; you may find yourself without a beautiful house, without a beautiful wife…” –those objects of middle-class American happiness and stability vanish in clouds of garish purple smoke.
What kind of movie is this, anyway?
Well, it’s a pretty great one, actually, although its charms are slow in developing.
That musical interlude, it turns out, is a dream that businessman Alan Clay (Hanks) is having while napping on a jet bound for Saudi Arabia. He awakens to find himself in the middle of an Islamic religious ceremony. He’s the only person on board not dressed in white and making a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Alan, whose career and marriage both have hit rock bottom, is trying to start over. He’s landed a job with a huge American telecommunications firm and is en route to Saudi Arabia to make a presentation of his firm’s latest technical innovation, a communications system that allows callers to converse with a life-size, three-dimensional hologram of the person on the other end of the line. The Saudi king will personally choose the winning bid; the job will be worth millions.
Being a can-do sort of guy and a born salesman, Alan hopes to reverse his business fortunes. Things aren’t so easily fixed in the marriage department. His ex-wife hates his guts. Mostly Alan feels guilty because he can no longer pay for college for his adoring daughter (Tracey Fairaway), who has dropped out and taken a job waitressing.
From the minute he touches down, things start going wrong. Alan has a killer case of jet lag and keeps missing the shuttle to the city of the future out in the desert where he’s to make his presentation. The Saudi bigwigs with whom he is supposed to meet have made themselves scarce and the three American technicians already on site are working out of a huge tent where there’s no wi-fi, inadequate air conditioning and nothing to eat.
It’s going to be a disaster. Except that it also may be the greatest experience of Alan Clay’s life.
Director Tykwer — who broke onto the international cinema scene with 1998’s “Run Lola Run” and followed it up with the moody and magical “The Princess and the Warrior,” the grimly beautiful “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,” the action-packed financial thriller “The International” and took a co-directing credit for the monumentally complex “Cloud Atlas” — might not seem a likely candidate to adapt Dave Egger’s best-selling novel for the screen.
And in the early going it’s hard to tell exactly what sort of animal this film is going to be.
There are moments of gentle comedy — many provided by Yousef (Alexander Black), the gypsy cab-driver who becomes Alan’s ex-officio chauffeur and enlivens the long daily drive through the desert with his gee-whiz observations.
But there’s also Alan’s sense that he’s lost in a place where he doesn’t know the language and where the rules he has followed all his life no longer apply. (It doesn’t help that he accidentally finds himself in Mecca, the holy city that is off-limits to unbelievers. Or that he makes a joke about being a CIA spy that very nearly ends in disaster.)
The sad sack American becomes the target of a Danish woman (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who tries to seduce him in the cloak room of her country’s embassy, where a full-bore bacchanal is in progress (in a country where alcohol is banned, folks tend to party hard at every opportunity). Thing is, Alan has way too much on his mind for a roll in the coat hangers.
Plus he’s got a nagging health issue — an egg-sized cyst on his back that sends him to a local clinic where a sad-eyed lady doc (Sarita Choudhury) provides not only great medical care but also lets down her guard to give this visitor an insider’s view of life in the kingdom.
Based on the film’s early scenes you don’t expect “A Hologram for the King” to effortlessly mutate into a devastatingly gentle and uplifting cross-cultural love story but that’s where the film is headed. Has Tom Hanks ever done sex on screen? I can’t recall an instance but now, in paunchy middle age, he’s not only romantic but heartbreakingly grateful.
There’s lots going on in Twyker’s screenplay, but as director he never pushes too hard. There’s a low-keyed, shaggy dog attitude at work here that slowly blooms into something terrifically moving.
“Hologram” is one of those rare films (given today’s attention-span-challenged audiences) that starts slowly and gets more interesting as it progresses. By the end you’ll be charmed.