H is for Hologram. I is for Inconsistent. J is for Jumble. K is for King.
In terms of bankable movie experiences, you can seldom go wrong with a Tom Hanks movie can you? While there are a few pages in his portfolio he might prefer to forget ("The Bonfire of the Vanities" anyone?) his movies are nearly all eminently watchable. And "A Hologram for the King" puts him into what might be deemed a 'preferred' character role for his acting style an every-man in a strange land facing trials and tribulations with hearty American bonhomie.
But here it doesn't really work, and it's not even Hanks' fault.
Hanks plays struggling salesman Alan who is given a do-or-die mission to sell one of his company's holographic videoconferencing systems to the King of Saudi Arabia as a way into winning a big IT supply contract for a new desert city being constructed. Promising his bosses success, he arrives to find a deflated demonstration team struggling to put on a show with the lack of the basic essentials: wi-fi; air-con; food! Alan has to battle with both local custom and obstructive secretaries to try to save the day, helped by his driver Yousef (newcomer Alexander Black).
Adding extra pressure to the mix is his marital status - Alan is recently divorced, and needing to financially support his daughter Kit (Tracey Fairaway) through college - and an alarming cyst that has suddenly appeared on his back. The latter requires the tender care of local doctor Zara (Sarita Choudhury, possibly best known as Saul's wife from "Homeland") and an unlikely cross-cultural friendship is struck up.
I was really looking forward to seeing this movie, partly because I like Tom Hanks and partly because of the quirky Talking Heads "Once in a Lifetime" rendition in the trailer (which actually opens the film, and is great I loved it). There are also a host of enjoyable episodic plot elements set against spectacular Arabian vistas that are memorable. However, that is all they are episodes. Unfortunately, the whole film is a jumble of tidbits that never gel into any sort of satisfactory story arc: We have an "infidel in the middle of Mecca" scene, that suddenly ends without event or note; We head off on a wolf hunt that subsides into well, I have no idea what: perhaps the denouement was supposed to mean something deep and meaningful, but it meant nothing to me; Even the main storyline tends to fizzle out to be replaced with an aquatic-based sub-story of inter-racial love. True that this romance is both touching and well done, but it feels entirely bolted on at the point you expect the film to end - it really doesn't integrate well.
Blame for this must rest with writer/director Tom Twyker ("Run Lola Run" and the almost impenetrable Hanks movie "Cloud Atlas", which I must admit I never got to the end of on a plane!) I think Hanks should consider playing the "two strikes and you're out" card with this director.
Hanks and Choudrey are fine in their leading roles, and the film really comes alive in the scenes between Hanks and Alexander Black as Yousef - his "driver, guide, hero!". There is really good chemistry between them, and although Black is a little too American- looking to genuinely pass as an Arab, he is effective and is probably the 'find' of the film.
Sidse Babett Knudsen (from TV's "Borgen") is also very attractive and personable as the sex-starved Danish contractor Hanne. Also watch out for cameo's from Tom Skeritt and Ben Wishaw.
But the acting talent - however hard they try - and the glorious cinematography (by Twyker regular Frank Griebe) can't make up for the erratic screenplay. This is a real shame, since the storyline around battling the adverse conditions of software demonstration abroad is a good one. As someone who used to work for IBM and did many demonstrations of this type in trade shows in far flung places in the Middle East, the Far East, Africa and South America, I have shared their pain, and it is enough to drive you to despair and madness. An opportunity squandered.
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