Those of us who work in business would like to believe that we can control what happens around us. We prefer to think that we bring enough influence to a situation to protect ourselves from surprise. And we usually try to be ready for anything that might happen. But that’s not always the case.
As Tom Hanks learns in the quirky and endearing film, A Hologram for the King, unexpected occurrences can lead to substantive meaning. Although this salesman arrives in Saudi Arabia convinced he has all the answers, he soon learns that he may be clueless about what questions to ask. What he experiences as an American working in a foreign country reminds us that, no matter how at home we may be when we’re actually at home, we need to open ourselves to see the rest of the world through other people’s eyes.
In a performance of spontaneity and humor, Hanks is cast as a former big shot who used to make big deals with big people. But his mistakes when negotiating with China push him off the corporate pedestal and he is forced to stretch the truth about his connections to secure a new job. Soon he finds himself in a middle seat in the back of the plane to Saudi Arabia to, hopefully, close a large technology deal with the King for this new employer. But, when he arrives, he quickly discovers how poorly prepared he may be for the surprises he soon encounters.
Despite its business framework, the film isn’t about the ins and outs of corporate sales. Writer/director Tom Tykwer – working from Dave Eggers’ novel – uses this setup to explore how people react to what they can’t predict and may not understand. Through this salesman’s story we see how people must reset expectations when they travel, as they secure resources to work, react to differences in religious beliefs, or seek medical treatment. The situations this American businessman must confront in a new place remind us that people who remain flexible about how the world acts may be the first to discover what’s special in the world.
For Hanks, the film offers a chance to breathe. Without the pressure of working in a big film, the actor seems to relish the chance to fully celebrate how a man might react to the unexpected. Hanks brings a contagious energy to his portrayal of someone so defined by his work that he can’t see beyond the transaction; a man so disconnected from everyday experience than he can’t cope when it begins to change. With the camera on him for most of the film, Hanks makes us believe in this odd and engaging film that, without his presence, might not garner much attention.
At a time of the movie year when we wonder which upcoming blockbusters will disappoint, A Hologram for the King surprises with its endearing exaggeration. Like the Tribeca Film Festival where it premiered, the film offers a fresh look at situations people may face every day, offering insight we may not have considered.
Content: High. This entertaining look at the foreign adventures of an American businessman offers Tom Hanks a delightful role in which he shines.
Entertainment: High. Thanks to writer/director Tom Tykwer the movie reaches beyond its quirky story to offer thought-provoking entertainment.
Message: Medium. This time around, the creators prefer to entertain than to deliver a serious or substantive message about cultural differences.
Relevance: High. Any opportunity to consider how we must look beyond traditional borders and differences is always meaningful.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. From the characters to the surprises to the message, Hologram offers a lot to discuss with older teenagers. But it’s not a film for the entire family.
(A Hologram for the King is rated R for “some sexuality/nudity, language and brief drug use.” The film runs 107 minutes.)
Rating: Four Popcorn Boxes
The Reel Dad Salutes Tom Hanks
While Tom Hanks is best known for his big roles in big films – from Forrest Gump to Apollo 13 to Bridge of Spies – he has, over the years, created a strong collection of rich characters in smaller projects similar to A Hologram for the King. Here are a few of my favorites.
Opposite Sally Field – who later played his mother in Forrest Gump – Hanks excels as a would-be stand-up comic who occasionally lets real life get in the way of the magic he creates on stage. Hanks demonstrates a strong command of the rigors of stand-up comedy – in front of an actual audience during filming – while bringing a great deal of heart to this bittersweet story of unfulfilled dreams.
A League of Their Own (1992)
At a time when his career was in a bit of a slump, Hanks the star agreed to play a supporting role in this Penny Marshall tale about a team in the American Girls Professional Baseball League. Hanks has a great time as manager Jimmy Dugan, a somewhat slovenly man who has let time pass by (and has had a lot of good memories to show for it). While the part is relatively small, the actor makes a strong impression.
Hanks won his first Oscar for his stirring portrayal of a man facing AIDS in this daring film from director Jonathan Demme. At the time, it was quite courageous for a Hollywood studio to create a mainstream film about the epidemic. And just as daring for a major star to participate. The film’s strong sense of authenticity – and the actor’s creative approach to the role – make us believe in this man who simply wants to matter. Hanks is amazing.
Catch Me if You Can (2002)
In a minor but delightful entry from director Steven Spielberg, Hanks is a joy as a man on the chase determined to stop a young criminal from any more transgressions. While the camera focuses on Leonardo DiCaprio – in one of his lightest and most engaging performances – Hanks walks away with the acting honors as a man with a purpose. And a heart.
The Terminal (2004)
In a near-miss collaboration with Spielberg, Hanks is at his most endearing as a man trapped in John F. Kennedy Airport when he is denied entry to the United States and can’t go back to his native country. Unfortunately the words in the screenplay do not match the creativity in Hanks’ performance and costar Catherine Zeta-Jones is woefully miscast as a flight attendant. But Hanks makes it all work.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)
While the film promises to examine the personal impact of 9-11 it actually becomes a study in the relationship between a father and son that tragedy cannot suspend. Hanks is magical in a small role as the father we all wish we knew and this child never wants to forget. With Sandra Bullock in her first film after winning an Oscar for The Blind Side.
Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
In a film that should have been better than it is, Hanks creates a delightful impersonation of Walt Disney, filled with confidence, bluster and optimism as he tries to convince writer Pamela Travers to let him film her Mary Poppins stories. If only this film had focused on Disney and Travers it would totally delight. But we’re forced to endure too much backstory for the film’s own good.
Thanks to the availability of titles in the Hollywood archive, any actor’s work can be savored at will. Congratulations, Tom Hanks, for all the performances we treasure, in films large and small.
See you at the movies.