Don't hold it against Tom Tykwer's A Hologram for the King that its best scene is also its first. As Alan Clay (Tom Hanks) strides down a suburban street singing a modified version of the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" ("You may find yourself … without a beautiful house … without a beautiful wife … "), the world around him -- the house, car and yes, the wife -- vanish into CGI smoke. He wakes up in an airplane, surrounded by pilgrims headed to the Hajj in Saudi Arabia. It's wild, disorienting and unlike anything else in this otherwise contemplative film.
But Tykwer likes that sort of thing: grand, stylized, cinematic gestures in pursuit of the subtle and the symbolic. It's fitting that he's taken on Dave Eggers' existential 2012 fable about a 50-something American businessman preparing to present a new 3D teleconferencing technology to the Saudi monarch. The King keeps not showing up, so the salesmen and his young tech-heads are stuck with nothing to do in an empty stretch of desert where a proposed city of the future is to be built.
The film remains mostly faithful to Eggers' story, showing us Alan splitting time between the desert and Jeddah, where he befriends driver Yousef (Alexander Black), Danish consultant Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and female Saudi doctor Hakim (Sarita Choudhury). We see the languid despair of the country's youth, the self-destructive hedonism of expats and the sly ways that cosmopolitan elites get around this society's strict regulations. It's a fragmented world, and Tykwer revels in the all-consuming unease, sublimating what Eggers made explicit: the joblessness, the debt, the isolation. He captures these themes in flashes, which ironically gives them new power.