"A Hologram for the King" is a baffling film, cinema without weight or heft. The problem is not that anything on screen is troubling, it's that nothing there, not even star Tom Hanks, is capable of holding our interest or attention for very long.
"Hologram," based on the much-admired novel by Dave Eggers, is written and directed by German director Tom Tykwer, whose last completely successful film might have been 1998's kinetic "Run Lola Run."
Though Eggers' book, a kind of fictional meditation on globalization and the human condition, has a decidedly melancholy tone, Tykwer has unconvincingly chosen to amplify the book's comic and romantic elements to unfortunate effect.
There's nothing wrong with comedy and romance, of course, but the clash of tones between the original material and Tykwer's version of it means that it's not clear moment to moment what we are supposed to feel or why we're supposed to feel it.
The prime victim of this tonal vacuum is the always game Hanks, who usually can be counted on to sow empathy in his wake but is all but powerless here. (Moviegoers with painful memories will remember that Hanks and Tykwer collaborated on the ill-fated "Cloud Atlas.")
Here Hanks is playing Alan Clay, an American businessman (introduced in a music video riff on the Talking Heads' "Once In a Lifetime") whose own life has seen better days.
A born seller and professional glad-hander (one review called the novel "a globalized 'Death of a Salesman'"), Clay has just gone through a bitter divorce, worries about not having the funds to put the daughter he loves through college, and is about to embark on a daunting sales endeavor.
Now an employee of an information technology corporation called Reliant, Clay goes to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with the goal of meeting with the country's king and selling him on a futuristic teleconferencing system that makes use of holograms.
Although a tenuous connection with the king's nephew got him the assignment, Clay finds that nothing in the kingdom is as it seems. The future city know as "The King's Metropolis of Economy and Trade" (based on a real Saudi endeavor) is largely unbuilt, and the area where Clay is to make his presentation turns out to be large tent with spotty air conditioning and non-existent Wi-Fi.
Worse than that, no one in the Saudi establishment feels any need to tell Clay the truth about anything, least of all about when he might make a presentation to the king who, it turns out, hasn't been seen in the Metropolis for 18 months.
Then there are the worries that Clay has brought with him from his stateside life, which include an angry father (a Tom Skerritt cameo), guilt about actions he took when he was an executive that led to the firing of hundreds of people, and a strange-looking growth on his back that worries him a lot. "I've lost direction, I think, and strength," he says at one point, and no one will be tempted to argue.
Hoping to make all this more involving, both for Clay and for an audience, "Hologram" involves him in a series of random encounters that frankly add up to little at all.
Most prominent is his friendship with Yousef (Alexander Black), "your guide and hero," a young Saudi given to random, theoretically humorous comments like "we don't have unions here, we have Filipinos."
There are also two women who, quite inexplicably, take a friendly/romantic interest in Clay, starting with Henne, a Danish national played by Sidse Babett Knudsen, employed to much better effect as the star of Danish TV's riveting "Borgen."
And then there is the mysterious Dr. Zahra Hakem (Sarita Choudhury), a hijab-wearing physician who treats Clay for that growth and assorted other ailments.
Despite its sophisticated literary pedigree, "A Hologram for the King" on film turns into yet another story of finding your bliss, of watching the latest in a potentially endless string of middle-aged guys finding out that some things can't be forced and that happiness in life means taking things as they come. When will they ever learn?
'A Hologram for the King'
MPAA rating: R, for some sexuality/nudity, language and brief drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: In general release