You may find yourself with a weak script, borrowing cultural currency from a song written over thirty years ago, shooting a film, in another part of the world, and you may ask yourself: ‘Well, why did they make this?’ In the case of A Hologram for the King, the answer is pretty straightforward – it’s an adaptation of a book that sold well, ergo there’s an established audience who’ll probably take a punt. Such calculations apparently justify what is a half-hearted if not immediately unlikeable movie.
The charm of Tom Hanks (who plays corporate running dog Alan Clay) is stretched beyond reason to try and repair the many glitches in this patchy holographic. (Spoiler alert: the hologram is seen on screen for approximately thirty seconds and appears to have no real significance for the film whatsoever). The narrative’s main sense of urgency is drawn from Clay’s inability to privately fund his daughter’s college education because he’s struggling to sell his house. This might have something to do with the 2008 sub-prime mortgage bubble, but the film never decides to actually be clear on that point. We’re meant to believe this is an urgent dilemma, presumably inspired by her father’s desire for her not to take out a student loan (again, never discussed), but the set-up is so bland, so milksop that the audience is hard-pressed to care at all. It’s not even entirely convincing that Clay cares.
The film is very much in the vein of baby boomer tourist-fiction like Eat, Pray, Love – mining some unendingly patronising idea of ‘The East’ for a cheap fix of exoticism. In this case: Saudi Arabia, one of those charming little slave economies that one is just bound to fall in love with, what with its distinctive cuisine and occasional beheading of sorcerers. The script cracks a few gags about how oppressive and corrupt Saudi Arabia is – just in case the audience was wondering whether the filmmakers knew how unpleasant the realities of its human right’s record is (they do) – but none of this seems to particularly trouble anybody. At one point, Clay walks past a human cock-fight taking place amongst some construction workers dressed in tattered rags.
Clay’s moral indignation wears the look of a man who just discovered the ice dispenser is empty, and he’s about to let absolutely no one know about it. In fact, it’s literally a matter of moments before he’s ensconced in a luxury condominium show room, asking for a cold beer. That iced brewski the balm that smooths the raking worry of care; he’s got a daughter y’know. There are moments when A Hologram for the King flirts with saying something meaningful about globalisation, or the relationship between the USA and the Middle East. In the end, nothing comes of it. The audience is left with a take-home message of profiteering in a semi-responsible, American sort of way. Rock the Cash-bah, Shlock and Awe, etcetera.