And you may find yourself in another part of the world. And you may find yourself at a high-tech sales meeting. And you may find yourself looking at Tom Hanks. And you may ask yourself — well, how did I get here?
I’m fudging the opening lyrics to “Once in a Lifetime,” the Talking Heads song that Hanks recites to open A Hologram for the King. But that feeling of strangeness, of being lost and out of balance is the best that can be said of Tom Tykwer’s scattershot screen version of the 2012 Dave Eggers novel about technology in the global village. The estimable Hanks — no one plays decency better or with less rectitude — takes the role of Alan Clay, a business hustler on his last leg. Alan has lost his beautiful wife and his beautiful house, and he can’t even pay his daughter’s college tuition.
There’s one last shot: a trip to Saudi Arabia where Alan can save his ass if he and his IT team can sell the elusive king on their new 3D teleconferencing technology. There’s more than a faint echo of Death of a Salesman in Hanks’ 21st-century take on Willy Loman. Attention must be paid. Metaphor alert: a puss-filled growth is toxically blooming on Alan’s back. He tries to lance it with a knife. But symbols in this movie do not die easily.
Eggers took a trippingly comic approach to this material on the page that also left room for a sorrowful subtext. But for Tykwer (Run Lola Run), the different tones don’t so much mesh as collide. He introduces characters from the book, including Yousef (Alexander Black), Alan’s comic-relief driver; Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a randy Danish consultant who offers him booze and an easy lay; and Zahra (the wonderful Sarita Choudhury), a Saudi doctor who might be just the ticket to connect Alan with life again. But the impact is diminished.
The major themes that rose naturally from Eggers’ clean prose feel shoehorned in by Tykwer. In flashback, we see Alan’s retired father (Tom Skerritt) berate his son for outsourcing American jobs again, like Alan did during his tenure at the Schwinn Bicycle Company. There’s no denying the ambition in A Hologram for the King, but a struggle does not add up to a satisfying movie — or even a reasonable facsimile of the beauty and terror Eggers evokes on the page.