Monday, April 25, 2016

Tribeca ’16: A Hologram for the King

Any country that prohibits the consumption of alcohol is a terrible place for a mid-life crisis. Most inconveniently, Alan Clay finds himself in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, just as his personal life and finances reach their nadir. He has one last chance to make a career-saving sale in Tom Tykwer’s A Hologram for the King (trailer here), which is now playing in New York after screening as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

How did the desperate-looking Clay get assigned the KSA account? He once cracked a joke that made one of the dozens of Saudi princes laugh. It is not much, but his company is looking to play any angle. They need the King to buy their holographic tele-conferencing software or face shareholder wrath. Unfortunately, Clay does not encounter the same sense of urgency when he finally arrives in Jeddah.

For the severely jet-lagged Clay, just getting to King Abdullah Economic City (KEAC) will be a challenge. Constantly over-sleeping the shuttle, Clay must repeatedly book Yousef as his private driver and the film’s comic relief. Once on-site, he quickly realizes his software pitch has been back-burnered. Nothing can happen without the King, who is constantly traveling abroad.

Clay’s team will also need better connectivity to make their pitch but they are being unceremoniously quartered in a stifling hot tent. The only staffer who will talk to him in the main building is Hanne, a Danish contractor who can at least hook him up with some contraband booze. To make matters worse, the suspicious growth on his back seems to get worse. However, his luck might finally change when he is examined by Dr. Zahra Hakem, one of the few women doctors in the KSA.

Seriously, it is hard to believe Dr. Hakem would ever treat a male westerner in a country where women are not allowed to drive (as the film duly depicts), but it allows a rather appealing romance to develop between the doctor and her patient. In fact, Tykwer’s adaptation of the Dave Eggers source novel readily acknowledges the severe theocratic regulations and the frequent public executions as a fact of Saudi life. However, it seems to reserve its outrage, since there are apparently work-arounds available for western expats. That is all well and fine for booze, but being LGBT in the KSA is still a dangerous proposition.

In fact, we get a sense of this intolerance when Clay starts his unlikely courtship of Dr. Hakem. Evidently, they can only steal a kiss while snorkeling along the sea floor. In terms of economic and geo-political concerns, the film clearly argues China is a far more sinister threat to the West, which is admittedly tough to argue with.

Tom Hanks does his Tom Hanks thing as Clay, but in this case his everyman is a bit more depressed and self-indicting. The halting romantic chemistry he develops with the charismatic Sarita Choudhury is quite engaging and quite convincingly played from a rational emotional perspective. (Again, it is hard to believe things could ever get so far in the opened-minded KSA, but why let reality stand in the way of a nice movie subplot?) On the other hand, Sidse Babett Knudsen (also seen in the first-rate Courted) is criminally under-employed as Hanne.

Arguably, Hologram invests greater symbolic significance in a cyst than any film since Richard E. Grant went nuts in How to Get Ahead in Advertising. Don’t worry, this one doesn’t talk. Strangely, Tykwer manages to humanize our friends the Saudis to a remarkable extent, even though the film will absolutely discourage viewers from visiting. Not essential by any means, A Hologram for the King is modestly recommended for those looking for a rom-com with mature adults, which are few and far between. It is now open in New York at the Lincoln Plaza, following its screenings during the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.