The two Toms — Tom Hanks and Tom Tykwer — are back together following their chores on the lamentable “Cloud Atlas” (2012). I guess that movie was a good experience at least for them if not audiences.
When you think about it though, Hanks has always been an adventurous actor, rolling off two Oscar wins to play gamely in hopeless movies such as “Joe Versus the Volcano” and, yes, “Cloud Atlas” along with many hopeful ones such as “Cast Away” and “Bridge of Spies.”
A fine comic actor, he has evolved into one of our finest serious actors as well, becoming in the process a kind of American Everyman.
Meanwhile the other Tom, the energetic and inquisitive German director, seemed destined to lead a new German New Wave after his breakthrough film, “Run Lola Run,” only for no wave to ever materialize. Instead he has moved into international films that explore a world struggling with treachery and conspiracies.
And this, of course, is the second discovery: that an engaging, wistful comedy can set up shop in a forbidding desert kingdom of religious puritanism and rigorous anti-Western sentiments that nevertheless gives an American salesman a welcome as a friend and possible partner — if the price is right.
Hanks plays a divorced, near broke middle-aged salesman from an American company called Relyand, who arrives in Jeddah to redeem his life — and perhaps begin to pay his loving daughter’s college tuition bills once more — by selling a holographic teleconferencing system to the King.
Every morning he is driven, usually late, by a cheerful young Saudi from his sterile high-rise hotel to a large white tent in the desert, pitched on the grounds of a planned economic center aiming to house 1.5 million people by 2025.
And every day he tries to cheer up three young colleagues who sit with laptops waiting to the King to arrive — he hasn’t been there for at least 18 months — in a tent with no Wi-Fi, food or much to do other than kill time.
The comedy stems from the sense of dislocation even more acute than that in Sofia Coppola’s wry comedy,“Lost in Translation,” his growing friendship with the Saudi driver, a search for alcohol in a land where such is forbidden and the surreal experience of a bacchanalian party at the Danish Embassy where he must dodge the advances of a randy expat.
Tykwer’s movie stems from his adaptation of the 2012 novel by Dave Eggers. I can’t improve on Pico Iyer’s description of the story as a kind of “Death of a Globalized Salesman.”
Like Eggers, Tykwer infuses this story with compassion for its lonely hero in midlife crisis and a shrewd understanding that American business has so outsourced its manufacturing that the country holds little competitive edge.
So in this new world order, in this desert that fills his shoes daily with sand and his soul with discouragement, Hanks’ Everyman struggles to prove himself — to his bitter ex-wife, his forgiving daughter but most of all to himself.
Telephone calls back home to his dad (Tom Skerritt), a veteran who rages at his son for helping to take American business abroad, underscores that manifest destiny is no longer part of the American package. In this new world order the Chinese lead the charge with cheap products.
Yet the greatest discovery in the film comes later. This is when you realize the film has taken a turn from its serious soul-searching and fish-out-of-water comedy in Alan’s encounters with the two tiers of Saudi society — the kingdom of prohibition and religious policing and its young people seething with rebellious ideas and forbidden desires — into a romantic drama.
A romantic drama in Saudi Arabia?
Yes, the two Toms pull this off with a delicately observed falling in love across a vast cultural divide that is winsome and heartfelt.
In trying to lance a cyst on his back, seemingly more out of boredom waiting for the King than any medical necessity, Alan finds he does need to see a doctor and the doctor happens to be a woman.
I have no idea how many female Saudi doctors work within its borders, but the movie convinces you that Anglo-Indian actress Sarita Choudhury’s physician, who mends Alan’s infected cyst, is among the elite few. And as luck would have it, she is about the only person who can also mend his damaged soul.
These romantic passages are the film’s finest sequences, where a seemingly impossible love might just mend an impossibly damaged man.
The film is not perfect. Tykwer tries to create too much comedy out of chairs collapsing underneath his protagonist. The buddy comedy about the middle-aged American businessman and his Saudi driver (delightfully played by Alexander Black) runs strong and deep until it simply vanishes into the desert.
In fact, at times it feels like story strands from Eggers’ novel, such as the Saudi sidekick and the randy expat, made it into the film only to fall away when Tykwer turned his attention to the romantic drama.
But these are quibbles. “A Hologram for a King” is that fine and rare thing, a comedy that makes profound observations with the lightest of touches. It takes in globalization, America’s place in the new world order and the emotional and spiritual rebirth of its bedraggled protagonist with a gentle, whimsical sense of mirth.
And that is the final discovery in this captivating film.
Opens: April 22, 2016 (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions/Saban Films)
Production companies: Playtone, X Filme Creative Pool, Primeridian
Cast: Tom Hanks, Alexander Black, Sarita Choudhury, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Tom Skerritt, Tracey Fairaway, Ben Whishaw
Director-screenwriter: Tom Tykwer
Based on the novel by: Dave Eggers
Producers: Uwe Schott, Stefan Arndt, Arcadiy Golubovich, Tim O’Hair, Gary Goetzman
Executive producers: Steven Shareshian, Gaston Pavlovich, Claudia Bluemhuber, Irene Gall, Gero Bauknecht, Jim Seibel, Bill Johnson, Shervin Pishevar
Director of photography: Frank Griebe
Production designer: Uli Hanisch
Music: Johnny Klimek, Tom Tykwer
Costume designer: Pierre-Yves Gayraud
Editor: Alexander Berner
R rating, 98 minutes