Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 27, 2016 1:25 am 
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Tykwer's glimpse of a Dave Eggers novel about globalization woes and romance

It's been clear since Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, if not long before, that Tom Hanks is a consummate professional who also instinctively, natively, inhabits a performance with lived-in authenticity. He does this with the protagonist of Tom Tykwer's film from Dave Eggers' 2013 novel, A Hologram for the King, Alan Clay, so we believe in Clay before we've learned very much about him. Clay comes to Saudi Arabia as a salesman for Reliant, a huge conglomerate, which has sent him to Jeddah to pitch for the IT infrastructure contract for King Abdullah Economic City. The trouble is never with Hanks. Gradually we realize that Eggers' novel is full of up-to-date cultural, economic, and political ideas and information that this movie has filtered down, leaving the story of a man who finds love and an easier job that allows him to pay for his daughter's college. And while Tykwer has provided the look and atmosphere of Saudi Arabia, several of the key Saudi Arabians aren't even played by Arabs.

What I like about this movie is its opening sequences, which I can identify with as someone who like Alan Clay has come to Arab countries to do a job and met with culture shock and daily frustrations. Hanks' Clay is a man who still believes in himself, who once did very well, but has erred and has come to crisis. He was long ago a door to door salesman; then he worked his way high up with Schwinn, the once quintessentially American bicycle company -- high enough to have contributed to the company's fall from grace due to bypassing unions and outsourcing to China. By now Clay can barely make any money, though with Reliant he could win big, if his team can dazzle the king with the cutting-edge holographic teleconferencing system he has come to sell, which can make a colleague in London appear in 3D in a tent in the Arabian desert.

Only, Clay is desperately jet-lagged. His team has been set up in a tent without wi-fi essential to their presentation, and isn't getting fed. The receptionist in the big fancy building not so nearby (Amira El Sayed) keeps telling him the representative he is to see isn't coming that day. And despite the "KSA" strict prohibition against alcohol, he gets repeatedly drunk with free-flowing illicit booze and in consequence is perpetually hung over.

His constant oversleeping leads him to the companionship of a makeshift and slightly wild cab driver, Yousef, to drive him out to King Abdullah's Economic City. Youssef - the first wrong note - is played by the good and enthusiastic actor Alexander Black, who, while able, doesn't fit the part. The second is the handsome Anglo-Indian actress Sarita Choudhury, as Tom's love interest, Zahra, the female Saudi doctor he sees, and becomes involved with, as a result of a cyst on his upper back. I am happy to report that the Danish lady at the work site, Hanne, is played by the authentically Danish Sidse Babett Knudsen. That she doesn't seem particularly Danish is perhaps most appropriate. A chap from London who fleetingly appears in hologram form is the authentically English Ben Whishaw, in one of the most cameo of cameo roles ever (Tykwer gave Whishaw one of his first big film roles in Perfume; he and Hanks are colleagues from the madcap Tykwer-Wachowski adventure that was Cloud Atlas).

I suspect that the faults of Tykwer's oddball, interesting film lie not just with the filtering process of making Eggers' novel into Tykwer's scenario, but to an extent with the novel itself. The book obviously is schematic, with things to sell, like Alan Clay. The holograms represent an airy inauthenticity, compared to those old fashioned, clunky but solid Schwinn bikes. Clay stands for American businessmen who have sold their own work force down the river. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia represents an international economic killing field where America is getting creamed. Maybe we should be glad that so many of Dave Eggers' lectures have been weeded out to leave more room for Alan and Zahra's late-blooming romance. But it feels as if we are witnessing the collapse of something that was never anything but a set of illusions (and teaching points) in the first place.

There are some good-enough, borderline authentic-seeming scenes with Youssef, when he hijacks Alan Clay to take him to his family home in the mountains. Alan gets driven, disguised, through the holy city of Mecca, without having to get circumcised to "pass" like Sir Richard Burton. Well, he's only driving through. Then he almost kills a wolf that's killing the family sheep. It may or may not be plausible, but it's an offhand, madcap adventure that jibes with my experiences in the Arab world. I like where Youssef, despite his misbehavior in boldly taking a kafir into the sacred city, politely asks Alan please not to look at the holiest of holy mosques, Masjid al-Haram. And the Danish Embassy party may be over-staged, but it's a glimpse of the secret life of foreigners living in this nuttily restrictive country. Some of this fortunately reveals no particular agenda. A Hologram for the King is sometimes original and momentarily entertaining. But it falls victim of its too-accurate depiction of boredom and frustration and leaves us feeling flat, Alan's undefined new job in Saudi and romance with Zahra hardly a solution to the global woes accessed before.

A Hologram for the King, 98 mins., debuted at Tribeca 20 April 2016 and opened in US theaters 22 Apr. Other international releases in May, June and July.

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