Malaise isn't Tom Hanks' thing, so A Hologram for the King with its death of an IT salesman vibe isn't a good fit. Hanks is far too indelible as a can-do personality to play why bother.
A Hologram for the King is an oddity for more reasons than its lead casting. Directed by Tom Tykwer, whose 1998 dynamo Run Lola Run now seems fluky, this adaptation of Dave Eggers' novel is flat as the Saudi Arabian desert where it's set, with a timid sense of existentialism that's confounding. Or maybe free will isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Hanks plays Alan Clay, sales rep for a technology firm specializing in 3D hologram telepresence. Alan's in Saudi Arabia to convince the king to install his program throughout a metropolis to be built someday in the desert. Alan isn't a tech guy; he used to sell Schwinn bicycles, until an outsourcing decision still haunting him today.
Alan is bitterly divorced and estranged from a daughter whose college he can't afford, and he has a worrisome growth on his back. He's desperate to seal this deal even though a one-sided culture clash keeps getting in the way, testing his professional patience. Alan isn't an ugly American but he's homely.
Tykwer shapes his movie around Alan's daily routine: rinse off, ride to work, regret, repeat. One benefit is Alan's driver, Yousef (Alexander Black), happy to make an American friend who knows Electric Light Orchestra. He's a light and later a guiding touch this movie needs. It won't come from Alan, who's joyless enough to resist a sexy woman (Sidse Babett Knudsen) throwing herself at him.
Things change when that growth on Alan's back needs treatment, and he immediate crushes on his physician Zahra (an alluring Sarita Choudhury). Almost magically, cultural barriers in a country where women are segregated and aren't allowed to drive disappear for this couple. Zahra's sensual defiance is romantic yet unlikely under penalty of death.
As Tykwer's movie proceeds, the swatches of sharp writing and absurdist clarity lifted from Eggers don't quite converge. A Hologram for the King is episodic to a fault, at least on screen in streamlined form. Alan's professional crises then and now — an outsourcing of his American Dream — don't accumulate much tension or tragedy. Neither does Zahra become much beyond Alan's own overseas acquisition.
A few pleasures emerge: A driveway gate surrounded by nowhere, manned by a guard perpetually wading in a kiddie pool; Tom Skerritt as Alan's ranting father, and any scene with Choudhury; the laughing faces of Saudis watching Alan's hologram demonstration, and what may lay behind them.
For Hanks, A Hologram for the King is strenuous work in a puzzling choice of role, much like his previous Tykwer project, Cloud Atlas. Alan calls for a degree of insincerity that Hanks may not be capable of playing; he hasn't really tried since 2004's The Ladykillers, another misfire. An actor stretches, and sometimes snaps.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.