Monday, April 25, 2016

Movie Monday: A Hologram for the King

This movie was aired first at the Tribeca Film Festival and somehow wandered across the Hudson River to a couple New Jersey theaters a week before its national opening last Friday.

It is one scattered piece of work.

The story is from the 2012 Dave Eggers novel of the same name.  (I did not read it: Middle-aged American executives' frustrations have been discussed rather extensively in our literature for almost 100 years now, and I was not drawn to the idea of another book plowing the same ground, albeit in a different setting.)  Critics liked the Hologram novel, but my impression is that readers were somewhat less enthusiastic.

Plot Metaphors

One thing that is striking is how many reviews of the movie reach for classic metaphors to describe its themes.

The main character, Alan Clay, is of course played by -- who else? -- Tom Hanks.  Clay and Hanks are both described as Everyman, the subject of a 16th century morality play that probably hasn't been staged in at least 200 years.  Alan Clay is a middle-aged executive who has lost his job, his marriage, his house and his ability to pay his daughter's college tuition.

This backstory is dispatched quickly in jerky shots and a quick-cut recitation from the Talking Heads song, "Once in a Lifetime." The other historical bit is a five-second recurring image in Clay's memory of the time he faced a roomful of blue-collar workers about to be fired when their Schwinn manufacturing jobs were outsourced to China.

Then it's on to Clay as Willie Loman in "Death of a Salesman," leveraging a brief encounter with a Saudi prince many years earlier into a long-shot assignment to sell a holographic system to King Abdullah Economic City, a massive enterprise just getting under way in Saudi Arabia.

After Clay arrives in Saudi Arabia, he becomes a character from the Samuel Beckett play, "Waiting for Godot." He is stalled at work, awaiting the arrival of King Abdullah to see Clay's company's presentation and fielding increasingly angry calls from his boss at the head office in Boston.

These metaphors may be the inventions of film critics trying to make sense of the uneven and not well-paced plot.

Then comes another metaphor drawn from the original novel -- a lipoma (a lump of unusual tissue growth) that has developed under the skin on Clay's back.

Clay's dismay continues until his lipoma is removed by a female doctor.  Then, finally, the king arrives and appreciates the company's presentation.  This is followed by the unsatisfactory resolution of Clay's marketing effort, which is explained (but not shown) in a few sentences.  The final act becomes an improbable love story that ties the whole project together.  At least that is the intention.


The film, perhaps like the book, observes but does not dwell on the relatively more challenging difficulties faced by people in Saudi Arabia.
        "We don't have unions here," Clay's driver tells him.  "We have Filipinos."
        When Clay remarks on a crowd he has seen as he is driven to his work site, his driver explains that the people have gathered to watch public executions.


One thing I enjoyed about A Hologram for a King was its travelogue aspect, including desert views, exotic buildings and even an unplanned drive through Mecca, a holy city that is absolutely off limits to non-Muslims.  These pictures gave me a sense of a country that I am unlikely to visit in my lifetime.
          Then, later, I learned that the exterior shots were filmed in Morocco.  This is not surprising; Saudi Arabia is a tightly controlled country that almost certainly would not countenance the film's scenes of heavy drinking and a woman talking privately with a man who is not a relative.
          I should have known better.


What most disappoints about the movie is that it bites off more than it can chew and isn't as coherent as it might have been.
         It is a film truism that a movie is more like a short story than a novel, and this makes sense to me. It takes 20 or 30 hours to read a book, and even when descriptive writing is replaced by imagery, most books have more plot action and character development than most movies can do justice in a couple hours.
         The Hologram movie compresses its main character's background so much that his existential crisis, his frantic grab for a very speculative job and his floundering in an entirely new culture lack sufficient grounding (the "before" of the story) in Alan Clay's past.  Several scenes and secondary themes probably should have been edited out of the script in favor of strengthening the overall narrative.


A Hologram for a King is set in the still-soft economic environment of 2010, but some of its elements, including the outsourcing of Schwinn jobs, happened much earlier.  This is a perfectly acceptable fiction convention -- conflating one company's woes with those of a major economic slowdown -- but it is a little bewildering if you know the history.

Another corporate phenomenon that occurred before the book's 2010 date was the promotion of holographic connections as the next big thing in corporate communications.  I had a minor role in a fund-raising effort for such a company.  The project manager was absolutely convinced that the technology would change the way multi-nationals did business.  This of course did not happen.
         Funny to encounter the idea in a book published years after teleconferencing and Skype had erased holograms from commercial memory.

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