'A Hologram for the King' gets lost in the desert (R)

You can tell a lot about a movie’s quality, and a director’s instincts, by the way a protagonist falls off a chair. In the wobbly film version of the Dave Eggers novel A Hologram for the King, Tom Hanks plays an American businessman at odds with the furniture, the business customs and the cultural mores of Saudi Arabia. His character, a struggling former Schwinn executive named Alan Clay, has come to Jeddah and to the nearby construction project known as King Abdullah Economic City, to pitch the king on a sophisticated new holographic teleconferencing IT system.

Nothing goes according to plan. The king and his associates are always somewhere else, never where Alan needs them. The delays force Alan to deal with his thoughts, and to reflect on his recent divorce, his college-age daughter and his own glad-handing approach to life. Also he has developed a strange humplike growth in the middle of his back, eventually tended to by a recently separated Saudi doctor.

In various ways Eggers’ deft, plaintive 2012 novel was made for the movies. It’s full of witty dialogue and (this part is trickier) it’s a story in the long, checkered literary and cinematic tradition of the white, middle-aged male American boggled by lands and situations previously unknown to him. There’s a sad socioeconomic core to A Hologram for the King, in that Alan is both an agent and a victim of ruthless global business practices.

Adapted and directed by Tom Tykwer, the movie downplays everything in favor of the budding romance between Alan and Dr. Hakem, played by the excellent Sarita Choudhury, best known to U.S. audiences for her work on the TV series Homeland. Getting there, however, isn’t much fun. About those pratfalls: True to Eggers, Tykwer’s script mines Alan’s situation for different varieties of fish-out-of-water humor. But something’s off in the early scenes — indeed, in most of the first half of the picture. The tone and rhythms are pushy, forced, strained, like the expression on Hanks’ face. What should be casual punctuation, filmed in medium shot, ends up in bam-pow close-ups. The key relationship between Alan and his wiseacre, Americanized Saudi driver (played by Houston-born Alexander Black) comes off as second-rate situation comedy, without the comedy.

Tykwer co-directed the nutty mosaic Cloud Atlas, the obsessively lavish Perfume and, earlier, the kinetic Run Lola Run. He’s not quite right for this assignment. The material needed more of a deadpan sensibility a la Bill Forsyth and Local Hero, and less overt filmmaking pizazz. Hanks does all he can. Individual moments and reactions (his “zowie!” nonverbal response to the local forbidden liquor, for example) remind us that he’s awfully good.

When the story focuses on the tentative romance, Hanks and Choudhury finesse it honestly and well. But A Hologram for the King, shot in Morocco, is so determined to make satisfying mainstream entertainment out of Alan’s internal and external crises, it ends up being more of a glad-hander than Alan himself.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Alexander Black, Sarita Choudhury, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Tracey Fairaway, Tom Skerritt.

Writer-director:
Tom Tykwer. Based on the novel by Dave Eggers.

A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 97 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, brief drug use. In Miami-Dade: Sunset Place, Aventura, South Beach, Cinepolis Grove; in Broward: Paradise, Gateway, Silverspot.

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