“A Hologram for the King,” Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of the Dave Eggers novel, begins with a jolt of formal audacity.
Tom Hanks’ Alan Clay, a salesman on a downward career spiral, bolts out of his home and lip syncs to the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” as images of suburban contentment disappear in puffs of colored smoke.
The sequence ends with him awakening from a dream on board a plane landing in Saudi Arabia, the ultimate fish out of water, surrounded by passengers engaged in prayers.
If the movie never recaptures the same sensibility as Clay embarks on a quixotic mission to pitch a technology plan for a construction project to the Saudi king, it retains the vibrancy that’s been characteristic of Tykwer’s work since the 1998 feature “Run Lola Run” launched him to prominence.
That’s especially important here because, when coupled with Hanks’ characteristically empathetic performance, the virtuoso technique helps shade over the inescapable reality that this is basically “Lost in Translation” lite, in which a man losing grasp of what his life’s become finds rejuvenation thanks to a series of one-of-a-kind experiences in a foreign land.
Tykwer flirts with absurdism, in repeated shot sequences in which Alan returns to his gleaming Hyatt hotel, where he’s greeted at the front desk, falls asleep, awakens too late, showers, brushes his teeth and shaves before returning to the burgeoning desert city where he and his team are forever waiting for their audience with the king.
With one scene set in Mecca and others located deep in the desert, the glittering surfaces of the city being constructed amid the sand contrasting with the gritty expanse surrounding it, the movie pointedly places Alan in scenes that are far removed from his suburban reality. He’s a man who is lost in every way, cursed with ample time to reflect on what’s set him on this path to spiritual ruin.
This gradual coming-of-age never pays off quite as it should from a dramatic standpoint, and the narrative comes dangerously close to treacly territory. It doesn’t have the intuitive psychological qualities of the best movies about this sort of profound disaffection.
But it does have Hanks, who complicates his everyman by playing up his feelings of alienation and despair, so that it’s impossible not to share in the emotions inherent in Alan’s journey.