If you haven't read the Dave Eggers novel on which it’s based—and I haven’t—A Hologram for the King is less adaptation, more light diversion. You wait the whole time for the inciting incident to arrive, the big thing that will kick off the action, only to realize that it happened without you noticing.
That sounds negative. I don’t exactly mean it that way. Life, after all, is full of moments you only realize were important in retrospect: that party you almost didn’t go to, the dashed-off blog post that led to a friendship, the accidental meeting in a doctor’s office.
But translating life’s happenstance into an effective bit of entertainment is trickier, and the movie has a disconcerting tendency to turn a hero’s existential, enigmatically signposted journey into a sandy path strewn with red herrings. When A Hologram for the King succeeds, it’s for two reasons: the presence of American’s true sweetheart Tom Hanks, and the inherent humor of its fish out of water premise, which psychologists tell us is a surefire recipe for comedy in human brains.
Hanks plays Alan Clay, a middle-aged American fellow who we come to understand once was a bigshot at Schwinn (the bicycle company). He did what seemed to be a good idea at the time and outsourced production to China. It wasn’t a good idea. Now he’s divorced, and his beloved daughter has had to take a college hiatus since he can’t make tuition payments. He’s lost his way. He’s a disappointment to himself. He's stuck being a salesman for a company that creates 3-D holographic conferencing systems. And he’s trying to meet with the King of Saudi Arabia, to sell him the technology.
This initial hoped-for encounter starts to sour when it becomes clear that the King of Saudi Arabia pretty much shows up whenever he wants, and in a Godot- (or GroundhogDay-) like manner, Alan slips into a routine of oversleeping, calling up Yousef the driver (Alexander Black) whose car may or may not blow up (he’s toying with the wrong vengefully-husbanded woman), going to random parties, and poking at a growth on his back, which could be most anything. He sees condos being built at a future development site in the desert. He interacts with obsequious but unhelpful staff. It is hard to get booze in Saudi Arabia; he overdoes it a bit when it is slipped to him by a Danish consultant, sterilizes a steak knife in a lighter, and attempts surgery. (Mercifully, we only see the aftereffects.)
This lands him in the hospital, where a doctor (Sarita Choudhury)—who, to Yousef’s surprise at least, is a woman. But it’s benign, as is the anxiety attack that brings them back in contact later. In between, Alan treks out to see his team at the presentation site. They are basically just waiting around. Everyone is basically just waiting around.
You could describe the film as yet another chronicle of a middle-aged man having an existential crisis in another country. Which it is, for sure, but that feels like a flat characterization: A Hologram for the King, as the title implies, is kind of about America’s fish out of water position abroad, a whole nation’s difficulty picking up the social cues and customs of a world that’s becoming less interested in catering to their products and whims. It’s an uncomfortable place, because all the pop cultural cues are still there—”we watch the same movies,” Yousef remarks, and subjects him to a steady stream of American pop music on cassette on their drives. But Youssef also gets uncomfortable when Alan looks at sacred religious sites with too much touristy interest, and Alan can’t really figure out how he’s supposed to operate in this world.