One of my favourite films of the year so far is Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion animation about a grumpy motivational speaker losing the plot in a soulless hotel.
A Hologram for the King (★★★, cert 12A, 98 mins), based on the 2012 novel by US literary darling Dave Eggers, covers similar ground, telling the story of a middle-aged salesman, Alan Clay, played by Tom Hanks, going quietly mad on a business trip to Saudi Arabia. Sadly, it has nothing like the edge or ambition of Kaufman’s film and is a decidedly patchy affair. Alan is in Saudi trying to flog a hologram conferencing system to the king. A whole host of problems come his way of both a professional and personal nature.
Work-wise, he and his colleagues find themselves stuck in a Godot-like loop, waiting an interminable number of days in a tent in the desert for their royal customer to make his grand entrance. Alan must also deal with the fact that, post-divorce, he can’t afford his daughter’s college fees and, to make matters even worse, a golf ball-sized growth has popped up on his back. Sub-plots involve an eccentric driver who guides Alan around the kingdom and a female doctor who serves as a love interest.
For a relatively short but densely plotted film, director Thomas Twyker does well to maintain momentum. There’s plenty of fun to be had (in one eye-watering scene Alan attempts to deal with that troublesome growth with the help of a large knife) and Hanks keeps pace with ease, convincingly portraying Alan’s charismatic façade and his melancholic truth.
What doesn’t work, however, are the lurches in tone, from slapstick to romcom via po-faced socio-political commentary. The latter is particularly hard to stomach as big issues, such as the loss of US manufacturing jobs to China and Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights situation, are explored with a box-ticking superficiality.
The lack of serious engagement with the matters raised is hammered home by the excruciatingly perky ending. And while a joyous finale is often to be encouraged, here it caters more to Hanks’s huggable screen persona than to the real-world problems the film all-too-fleetingly brushes its way past.
Apologies for the spoiler, but please trust me when I say you’ll see the happy ending coming from way across the Arabian desert. All ends well for Alan, so everything is right with the world – it’s a sentiment that’s meant to send us out of the cinemas uplifted. I was just left feeling queasy.