Tom Hanks goes for on a journey of self-discovery in this 2016 movie set in sunny Saudi Arabia; Lee checks it out.
After decades of movie adaptations of novels, popular or otherwise, we no longer need to actually read the novels to see the signs, to know when a movie has failed to capture the essence of the novel that inspired it. Replicate as many of the story beats as you can, include all the memorable characters moments; odds are, when those film producers get their hands on your work, they won’t worry about reading the finer details.
That said, A Hologram for the King’s base novel may not even be that good to begin with if the story beats are any indication. The ‘white man rekindling his lease on life by finally sleeping with a woman who isn’t white’ story? I know this movie is white, but surely it can’t be that white? Oh good, layer on some comparisons between Saudi Arabian and American cultures ineptly, please, anything but this later-age white guy fantasy.
Part road-trip, part family melodrama, part ‘finding myself’ story, part cultural and business practice think-piece; each of these parts could be interesting on their own with the right script, even putting two together could potentially lead to an interesting narrative fusion somewhere down the line, but all at once? Much like the movie, the focus becomes less like a business trip, more like tourism.
A Hologram for the King seems to have a few things it wants to say, especially about the pervasive and often contradictory attitudes of Islam within Saudi Arabian culture, but with snippets of the issues being fed to us by the likeable-enough comic relief Yousef (played by Alexander Black) to then be either commented on or sardonically glanced at by Tom Hanks’ Clay, it comes with an air of the white man knowing better, which of course is not a card you want to even be suspected of holding if you want to posit some serious criticism. Ultimately, it reads like ‘my first social commentary’; good for beginners, but raises way more questions than it’s capable of answering.
Performances are fine, cinematography and direction are serviceable at best, and there are moments of good characterisation amongst the noise. It’s not uninteresting when it finds a groove, but the film gets much too bogged down in trying to make Clay, the over-promising divorced businessman with the bitch wife and the need to prove himself, sympathic or relatable, two things he just isn’t, and this often tarnishes what little good favour the movie has earned by injecting contrived drama and awkward physical comedy into the piece. It’s a pass, in other words.
There was the hint of a salvageable story however: once Clay and Zahra decide to finally go out on a date, we spend maybe ten minutes with the two getting to know each other in a car ride. Wouldn’t it have been so much more interesting to just centre the entire movie around that premise? Think Locke, but with two characters who spend an hour getting to know each other’s pasts and ideals and social backgrounds before their first date. There was good chemistry here, and we could have used it as an excuse to ditch the whole ‘white guy finding himself’ angle. It would certainly have been better handled than this.
Plus, you could smuggle in that Audi ad a little easier if it actually matters to the plot.