Yeah, I didn't think so. When Tom Hanks stars in a movie, people usually notice. For some reason, A Hologram for the King got lost in the shuffle. Premiering in 401 theaters with a limited marketing campaign, the latest film from Tom Tykwer feels like a movie that Roadside Attractions just wanted to push under the rug. Which is unfortunate, because A Hologram for the King is a pleasant, expertly crafted film that works in nearly every way. It's not one of Hanks' most impressive films nor is it one of his most ambitious, but with a light, easy-going tone, and a captivating performance from Tom Hanks, this low-key character drama is a film that could surprise some viewers looking for a nice slice of counter-programming in this action-packed summer.
Judging by that synopsis, you'd probably think that not much happens in A Hologram for the King. And you'd be right. Tom Tykwer's film never really sticks to one plot or focuses enough to tell a complicated story. It just meanders through the desert oasis, while creating enough interesting scenarios to keep the audience hooked. If there is a glaring issue with A Hologram for the King, it's the pacing and the focus. The narrative can be a bit all over the place during the course of the movie, and it seems like on the story front, Tykwer never really knew what he wanted to tell. One moment it's focused on the sale of the hologram, and the next, it flips into a totally different area. There are times where the movie just seems lost in its own world.
But at the same time, even without a really strong focus, A Hologram for the King flows beautifully. By choosing to eschew a carefully calibrated story, Tykwer (who wrote the screenplay as well) is able to create a free-flowing atmosphere that allows us to really get to know the character of Alan Clay. Despite the often drifting nature of the film, A Hologram for the King is a constantly lovable, diverting film. Tykwer is terrific at creating mood and tone, and the spiritual, lighthearted sentiment that runs through this film is soothing and entertaining. There isn't a boring moment in the film, and even though the material is relatively routine on the surface, Tykwer blends in enough directorial energy and panache to make A Hologram for the King feel fresh and delightful.
There's no getting around it though- without Tom Hanks, this movie doesn't work. Undoubtedly one of the most talented actors on the planet and one of my personal favorites, Hanks injects magic into even the most basic of roles. On the surface, Alan Clay isn't a super compelling character. He's a checklist of things that we've seen in movies like this before. He's lost direction, he's searching for something new, he finds new life in a new land, etc.- it's not overly fresh material. Some of Tykwer and novelist Dave Eggers' symbolism is a little on the nose, and in the hands of another actor, the overt nature of the material may have consumed the movie and suffocated it, preventing it from ever growing into anything.
With Hanks, that is never the case. From start to finish, A Hologram for the King is his movie and it's his amiable, good-humored performance that holds everything together. Hanks carries every scene of the film, giving a sympathetic charm to Alan that works magnificently. It isn't on the level of his iconic performances, but this is a purely character-based film, and Hanks is able to exploit that to his advantage. By the end of A Hologram for the King, I cared deeply about Alan and his decisions, and after the serio-comic adventures of the film, it was refreshing to watch it reach a simple and happy conclusion. When you buy a ticket for this film, you're buying a ticket to see Hanks at his subtle best- and in that way, you won't be disappointed.
Beyond the terrific central performance of Hanks lies a supporting cast that often adds a fun and fascinating element to the movie. Alexander Black is tremendously funny as Yousef, standing toe-to-toe with Hanks and stealing each scene he's in. Black has very limited acting experience, but if his role in this film is any indication, we're going to be seeing him for a long time. Sarita Choudhury appears more in the final act of the film, but she's terrifically subdued, and her chemistry with Hanks is palpable. There's also one scene where Tom Skerritt shows up. I can't really tell you why he's in the movie, but he is.
A Hologram for the King is good cinematic comfort food. It isn't an overly ambitious drama, nor is it a film with incredibly weighty themes on its mind. Instead, it's a well-made, exceptionally acted film completely centered around its star performance- something that is all too rare in our modern cinematic landscape. I walked in with little to no expectations at all, and I walked out feeling a little bit better about the world. Very few people will see A Hologram for the King, and it won't have a real lasting impact on Hanks' career, but this sweet little film pays a nice emotional dividend and works as a solid slice of character-driven entertainment.
THE FINAL GRADE: B+ (7.6/10)