Dave Eggers’ novel about America’s uncertain place in the global economy, “A Hologram for the King,” comes to the big screen with that most American of movie stars, Tom Hanks. He’s the perfect choice to play Alan Clay, an ever-optimistic salesman struggling through midlife crisis, and the film opens with a terrific scene you never thought you’d see: Hanks, in character, performing the Talking Heads’ jagged ballad of materialistic malaise, “Once in a Lifetime.”
It’s an odd and unexpected treat that sets the tone for what follows (“And you may ask yourself/Well, how did I get here?”), but it also sets us up for disappointment. The movie doesn’t have the tightly wound energy of a music video but the meandering feel of a drama that isn’t sure what it’s saying. And when its messages do become clear, they tend to underwhelm.
Alan is an older guy in the youngish business of information technology, but his flesh-pressing skills are valuable. His company, Relyand, sends him to sell hologram technology to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia turns out to be a disorienting experience. Booze is illegal but easily obtained. The threat of violence is everywhere but never materializes. Nobody shows up when or where they should. It doesn’t help that Alan is distracted by a large tumor on his back, a manifestation, he thinks, of his failed marriage and checkered career.
Writer-director Tom Tykwer (“Cloud Atlas”) couldn’t film in Saudi Arabia so he chose Morocco, a serviceable substitute, at least to untrained U.S. eyes. One thing Tykwer does well is to paint mesmerizing images of empty desert on the verge of urbanization. Entire cities sit half-built and vacant, but behind any random door could lie a sparkling penthouse straight out of Las Vegas. It’s a surreal, Saudi vision of what we’ve always called the American dream.
An East-West romance between Alan and his Saudi doctor (an impressive Sarita Choudhury) feels like a last-minute addition. It also feels like an oversimplification of the movie’s broader themes. Then again, it’s hard to say what those were supposed to be.