This film was better than expected. Not that marketing should be a factor in a review, but the trailer for A Hologram for the King presented a random comedy-drama starring Tom Hanks, arriving outside of awards season with little to suggest something worthwhile. Sure, the film tells a seemingly trite story of a white man traveling to an exotic location and reevaluating his life, but it does it pretty well. Most audiences didn’t even know this film came out, but now it’s on Blu-ray for people to discover.
Hanks stars as Alan Clay in a story adapted from a novel by Dave Eggers. Alan is a washed-up business man who sent to Saudi Arabia in an attempt to secure the IT contract for a major development in the middle of the desert. Once there, Alan deals with the stress of jetlag, bureaucracy, culture shock and his own romantic and family life. Yes, the film basically traffics in ideas seen so often that you could call this the male equivalent of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot for 2016.
Fortunately, the film is actually pretty successful in what it is going for. Hanks is in a role that pushes him to his nice guy limits in a way that challenges the actor to make something out of very little. For being a typical (just over) middle-aged man trying to find himself, you can do a whole lot worse than Hanks, so the results keep this film amusing. Why this could not work for the dismal Larry Crowne, I do not know, but for this low-key comedy-drama, the pieces do end up aligning properly.
Perhaps it has to do with the filmmaker. Director Tom Tykwer is coming off of his highly ambitious collaboration with the Wachowski Sisters, Cloud Atlas, for this film and I guess the novel must have worked for him, as he adapted the screenplay as well. This may not completely be the case, but his European sensibilities must add something to the way he presents this story and manages to be respectful to the Kingdom. There are some tonally jarring moments, given how the film slips in and out of heavy drama concerning Alan’s past, but it certainly brings more life to an otherwise plain story.
As opposed to some other films, we also get a cast consisting of Middle Eastern actors that do not feel like caricatures, as well as age-appropriate romantic interests for Alan. The supporting cast is strong enough. In particular, Alexander Black, Sarita Choundhury and Sidse Babett Knudsen all have good chemistry with Hanks. There is even something to admire in the matter-of-fact way Knudsen and Hanks bond without having it go too far.
A Hologram for a King also allows Tykwer to tap into what I would believe the book comments on. Social commentary comes naturally to a film like this and you certainly have a director who can put that on screen. Tykwer has done plenty with wild visual in the past with films like Run Lola Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murder, so it is of little surprise to see him apply that here, albeit while attempting to keep the spirit of Eggers alive. The visual ambition is never more apparent than the opening scene, which features Hanks performing a modified version of “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads though and I wonder what could have been if Tykwer did attempt more abstract ideas such as this.
While the film rarely goes that crazy again, it does feature plenty of stops along this journey. They are made to emphasize the alienation Alan suffers, as he deals with the plight of being a man who can both joke and feel awkward about his new surroundings. There is also the exploration of what is going on in Alan’s mind, as we learn about a key past issue where he had to tell a room full of workers that their jobs were being outsourced. Sticking with the drama, this balances well with Hanks showing the literal pain his character goes through, leading him to a confident female doctor (Choudhury).
One could think of this film as slow and without much purpose, beyond giving an older crowd a somewhat idealized take on where things could go if they just got out of their own head. That is fair, but also reduces the elements that are quite strong. Hanks is as likable as ever and the film works well enough at telling this story, without becoming too pompous for its own good. Given that I was perplexed by what to expect, I’m glad to have seen what I got.
A Hologram for the King arrives on Blu-ray with an AVC-encoded 1080p transfer that does a fine job for the film. Shot digitally, a good amount of effort was done to make this film feel about as epic as possible for a mid-life crisis movie set in the Middle East. Colors pop quite well, despite an interesting color palette that somewhat downplays the desert setting. Facial textures are strong throughout. Black levels look good, deep and inky for the most part. While the opening sequence sticks out for its use of digital effects, this is a solid transfer.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track features a fine mix that properly balances this dialogue-heavy feature with the film’s score and random music choices (Hanks’ driver plays lots of 70s/80s music). There is a good job of sound mixing overall, as the film balances its more obvious elements with the background noise, sound effects and other moments. No real issues to speak of for a fairly low-key drama.
For a film that was basically dumped in the spring, I am actually surprised there are any extras to speak of. That said, while these are pretty standard featurettes, they do deliver insight.
- The Making of A Hologram for the King – Some good interviews here with the cast and crew.
- From Novel to Screen: The Adaptation of A Hologram for the King – More interviews discussion the adaptation process, with a little overlap.
- Perfecting the Culture – A look at depicting the Saudi environment.
A Hologram for the King is not a great film, but it has plenty to offer as far as seeing Tom Hanks do some pure acting and letting us see a unique environment. The story is familiar enough, but it was more worthwhile than expected. The Blu-ray is solid. Good audio/video presentations and a few okay-ish extras. Worthy of a rental for sure for those interested.