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A Hologram for the King


Published May 4, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated May 10, 2016 at 3:56 p.m.

Tom Hanks began his film career as a leading man in 1984, the same year I began reviewing films. One movie he made that year (Splash) became a minor classic. The other (Bachelor Party) did not. But the latter was the first film I ever reviewed on television, so it'll always have a special place in my heart.

Hanks, it's safe to say, has earned a special place in the hearts of millions. I've reviewed dozens of his pictures and even somehow got invited to a party he attended to promote Nothing in Common, a 1986 comedy he made with Jackie Gleason. I've followed the ups of his professional life (Philadelphia [1993], Forrest Gump [1994], Apollo 13 [1995]) and its downs (Larry Crowne [2011], Cloud Atlas [2012], Saving Mr. Banks [2013]). And, in the process, I've noted a troubling trend.

Having won the public's hearts — on top of a couple of Oscars — and starred in more timeless, beloved titles than virtually any other actor alive, Hanks evidently grew restless. He sought fresh worlds to conquer on the business side of cinema. Increasingly, his focus has shifted from choosing worthwhile projects to putting together lucrative deals.

That'll happen when one of the first films you produce (2002's My Big Fat Greek Wedding) winds up among the most profitable in history. On a budget of just $5 million, the schmaltz fest brought in $375 million worldwide. Ever since then, Hanks has divided his energies pretty evenly between art and commerce. While it's done wonders for his portfolio, I'm not sure it's paid much in the way of creative dividends.

To wit: A Hologram for the King, the first of four films in which the actor will appear this year. (Also in 2016, Hanks has producer credits on three TV documentary miniseries and five feature films, including the recently released My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.) Hologram was written and directed with a minimum of imagination by Tom Tykwer (The International) and is further hobbled by lead work in which its star breaks zero new ground.

The film is the story of Alan Clay, a salesman whose marriage and career have cratered, leaving him unable to send his daughter to college and desperate for a fresh start. And it's pretty much what you'd have if Larry Crowne had been set in Saudi Arabia, with Julia Roberts' character replaced by a sensual surgeon in a hijab (Sarita Choudhury).

To say the German filmmaker takes liberties with the source material — Dave Eggers' 2012 meditation on America in the age of globalization — would be to vastly understate the mauling the book sustains. A nuanced geopolitical parable has been repurposed into a generic romantic comedy, the equivalent of turning, say, The Corrections into a sitcom.

Hanks and Tykwer conspire to transform the often-melancholy novel into a laugh fest dependent on the most threadbare of fish-out-of-water tropes. Alan travels to the Middle East in hopes of selling high-tech phone-conference technology to Saudi royalty for use in a futuristic city that has yet to be built. A typical running joke has him emptying sand out of his shoes at the end of the day.

Will he seal the deal? Will he find love with the doctor he consults about a metaphorical bump on his back? Will a white dude play his Saudi guide (Alexander Black)? It's highly unlikely that you'll care. There isn't a character within a mile of this movie who's any more fleshed out than its flickering, mirage-like holograms. They serve as a CGI reminder that, though we're seated in a cinema and gazing at a screen, there's really nothing there.