It’s hard to imagine a more Tom Hanks-y setup than prizewinning author Dave Eggers’ 2012 novel A Hologram for the King. American businessman – and all-round everyman – Alan Clay travels to Saudi Arabia to present a new IT system to the country’s monarch. Feeling way out of his depth, Alan befriends a goofy local cabbie Yousef (Alexander Black), worries about a mysterious growth on his back and flirts first with a Danish contractor (Sidse Babett Knudsen) then with a local doctor (Sarita Choudhury). All the while he’s coming to terms with the local culture and learning that there are other ways to live than the way he did back in Nowheresville, Iowa.
It’s a story of personal growth with a troubled but likeable central character, a quiet satirical edge and an awareness of the wider world, not to mention a spot of middle-aged romance. Eggers could’ve saved everyone time by just calling his hero Tom Hanks in the first place. But stripped of the author’s knowing prose, this movie adaptation struggles at first. We’ve seen stories of decent men adrift in foreign lands before, and we’ve met countless comedy sidekicks like Yousef, too. Hanks is as charming as ever, and his struggles with the vagaries of Saudi bureaucracy are amusing. But there’s precious little insight into the country’s problems with exploitation and modern-day slavery – apart from a brief glance at some hard-up foreign workers.
Nevertheless, as the story unfolds, A Hologram for the King finds ways to win us over. A jaunt to the country breaks the monotony and as the relationship between Alan and his love interest deepens, the film takes on new life, offering genuine insight into the way people discover one another