Tom Hanks is one of Hollywood’s most talented and popular actors. He’s in the golden years of a landmark career and keeps picking novel, interesting, rewarding projects. Hanks makes movies where cars don’t hit each other and the point of the story isn’t promoting a theme park adventure ride.
The star is equally admirable in his latest comic drama, “A Hologram for the King,” based on the wry 2012 novel by Dave Eggers. He plays Alan Clay, a garrulous business executive who earned a fine living at Schwinn bicycles. He felt a poignant level of empathy when he informed the nameless strangers at the plant that their labor was being outsourced to China. His sensitivity ticked up several rungs when he was downsized, too.
Getting back on the winning team drives him to Saudi Arabia to sell a high-tech 3-D video messaging system to the king. Well, try to pitch it. America’s wealthy, antiquated, obstinate ally is a maze of cultural, bureaucratic and geographic jumbles. Reaching royal leaders who promise meetings nonstop but never arrive is even tougher. The ever-lengthening sales mission bounces him from manic energy to exhaustion.
His young tech squad is housed by the Saudi government in an inhospitable tent in the desert without food or – gasp – Wi-Fi. His patronizing boss calls him for instant progress updates, then hangs up on him as more important calls come in. While Alan’s picaresque adventure taps every friendly wheedling skill he has, his assignment feels more like a kamikaze run each day.
Since he’s desperately chasing the deal largely to finance his beloved daughter’s college tuition, he feels like a fundamentally humane guy to sympathize with, the sort of role Hanks automatically makes full of personality.
There are a few characters here who recognize those qualities. Alan’s Arab driver (an ebullient Alexander Black) awkwardly tries to be friendly by offering trashy American cassette rock and a side trip to check out the public executions, but over time he and Alan build an alliance. The worker piloting the excavator outside the tech team’s tent initially ignores Alan’s daily “hello” waves like he’s an alien. Eventually he waves back.
The film is about the specific experience of losing contacts in your faraway home and finding a seemingly fitting circle of friends where life has landed you. A painful back brings Alan into the care of a lovely doctor (Sarita Choudhury) who sends subtle signals that her interest in his well-being may extend beyond professional boundaries. Or religious ones; women in conservative Saudi face an outright ban on romantic and sexual contact with non-Muslim men. And yet there is an appetite for freedom dancing in her pupils. Alan’s last-ditch run for the deal of a lifetime may have nothing to do with commerce.
Director Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) manages to view Alan’s exile as both enchanted and nervous, connecting it to the rootlessness and ever-evolving values of our time. It’s not entirely free of stereotypes or sentimental moments. What it is, though, is amazingly likable.
‘A Hologram for the King’
Rated: R for some sexuality/nudity, language and brief drug use
Starring: Tom Hanks, Alexander Black, Sarita Choudhury
Directed by: Tom Tykwer