‘A Hologram for the King’
Tom Tykwer
Stars: Tom Hanks, Sarita Choudhury
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Tom Hanks goes to Saudi Arabia. That’s the set-up for “A Hologram for the King,” which initially looks like another fish-out-of-water comedy that plops an American in a foreign land so he can point and laugh. This time, however, the joke is usually on the white man. A bumpy, messy but sometimes quietly trenchant take on Dave Eggers’ 2012 novel, it’s as much a film about a middle-aged man finding renewed life abroad as it is a critique of same — a temperature-taking that tries to gauge where America stands in the current global village. And unlike some people, it doesn’t seem bothered to learn we’re no longer on top. In fact, it thinks that’s pretty exciting.

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It doesn’t always seem so enlightened. One of the first things shown is a jokey shot of Tom Hanks looking uncomfortable as the only white man on a plane headed for the Middle East. It’s “Lost in Translation”-level icky, but it’s quickly establishes this is no Ugly American romp. Hanks plays Alan Clay, a lifetime salesman who’s landed in Saudi Arabia in a last-ditch effort to sell a teleconferencing hologram gizmo to the nation’s king. Said king winds up forever abroad himself, jet-setting around the globe on endless appointments and keeping Alan and his team of young techies sitting around, waiting for an appointment that, as the days turn into weeks, soon seems like it may never happen.

There’s another reason “Hologram” isn’t Ugly American: It’s only partly American. A half-German production with a German filmmaker (“Run Lola Run”’s Tom Tykwer), it plays like an alternate universe Tom Hanks vehicle, one where America’s second Jimmy Stewart lures unsuspecting viewers into a movie that’s more worldly than it first lets on. Hanks is no longer as powerful as he once was, and over the last handful of years he’s used his brand to hop on forward-thinking (and sometimes underperforming) products. Say what you will about “Cloud Atlas” (also co-directed by Tykwer), it was both a radical blockbuster and one that, however awkwardly, tried to envision a world in which white male straight Americans were no longer the center of attention.

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“Hologram” keeps flirting with upholding the status quo, or at least cliches that deserve to die. Alan befriends Youself (Alexander Black), a goofy local driver who likes to blast ELO and Chicago. Later he winds up in a hesitant romance with Sarita Choudhury’s Zahra, a doctor who still has to obscure her hair in a long veil. It seems like both characters, neither terribly defined, exist primarily to coax our middle aged hero out of his shell and give him a new lease on life. And yet Tykwer avoids making this a whine-fest that’s all about Alan. Yousef and Zahra are both likable, while Alan’s the biggest fool in the film, prone to stupid grouchiness and stupider impulsiveness. Irked by an immense boil on his back, he drunkenly stabs at it. When he wakes up hungover, he sees a pool of blood on his bed sheets and — in a move you wouldn’t see even in Hank’s “Money Pit”-era — vomits all over it.

A precise technician working on a sloppy, episodic comedy, Tykwer is far from subtle, just as Eggers’ novel makes no bones about its subtext. Even the fact that Alan, when jumped on (by age-appropriate women, as it were), proves impotent is a too on-the-nose metaphor. At best Tykwer is goofy about it. The film’s jarring, awkward and likably silly opening finds Hanks screeching “Once in a Lifetime” in a music video-style dream. It’s impossible to miss what it’s saying: The Talking Heads were singing about suburban malaise, while the film uses the song to show how Alan’s kind is increasingly and deservedly displaced. “Hologram” frequently struggles to be more than a cinematic think piece; it practically writes its grad school paper for tired grad students. It also means what it says, and is completely sincere when, in its final stretch, it moves from satire into a middle age romance. It points the way forward not only for the world but for better movies.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge