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Miraculously, Tom Hanks comes out on top in the desert-set burlesque A Hologram for the King. He’s at his weary-charming best, zapping you with pathos, playing a debt-laden American businessman attempting to sell IT to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. This, despite Tom Tykwer’s platitudinous direction that belongs to a genre of slightly heightened, slightly comedic, middlebrow literary adaptation screaming out for fresh jokes and less obvious personalities (see Salmon Fishing in the Yemen).
At first the movie exists entirely in the air-conditioned hotels and offices of uptown Jeddah. Recently arrived and painfully jet-lagged, Hanks glumly considers the minarets and residential blocks from his window, sipping tongue-rasping hooch. But soon we are taken beyond, to a vast city being constructed in the yellow-red sands far from town. Labouring along freshly tarmacked highways, Hanks’s old car passes dunes flowing like draperies that after a while seem to merge into the sky under a sun that drains all colour from the frame. For brief moments, you feel a real infinity of space.
Divorce, bad business deals with China and looming redundancy with no pension have forced Hanks to Saudi. Wretched and untethered, he finds raucous parties in the Danish embassy and a chatty-innocent local taxi driver to show him the sites and cuisine. But he must prepare for a career-defining tech-presentation (in movies they’re always career-defining) in front of the (never-arriving) king in a tent struck on the crescent sands. Like him, we wait for his purpose here to be revealed.
And yet, even if you haven’t read the novel by Dave Eggers that it’s based on, you are ever-aware that the story’s edges are being bevelled. Sure enough, like so many stories set in the Arab world, everything quickly collapses under the temptation to exoticise and lightly patronise (work in a tent? They work in tents!). And although the story is set in 2010 it feels older, dated. Only when Hanks wanders the as-yet-to-be built city is there the bat-squeak of something more interesting: of Saudi Arabia perhaps trying to diversify, investing in massive infrastructure to generate an alternative economy amid falling oil prices. Of energetic crown princes wresting power from slow, old kings. And of America hawking its wares, begging behind China like an also-ran at a trade fair.
Hanks brings much interest to his laconic, bereft character, chasing the bird of happiness. He is quite the perfect actor to play an American suffering while the US is in economic decline — because he was such a star when it wasn’t. Where Tykwer wants us to (old-hattishly) view modern Saudi Arabia and its vast steel structures glittering in the heat as “Ballardian” and “surreal”, Hanks, with his drooping, humorous face, has a way of making us feel that actually, no: this is human, and happening now. This is geopolitics, and money. This is the world.