While we were all worried about Transformers‘ hollow blockbluster and Paranormal Activity spawning a brood of weakling imitators, did Eat Pray Love quietly become the most harmful film of the new millennium? Since Julia Roberts ditched her humdrum life to cavort about Europe and Asia while eating delicious foods and banging a rotating carousel of superhot Eurohunks without a care in the world, a legion of lumpy midlife-crisis pictures have sent white people at a crossroads out of their dull existences to rediscover life’s wonders through the therapeutic powers of travel. Observing inscrutable foreigners and their quirky cultural habits invariably reinvigorates the white protagonist, and having completed their mission in life, all the characters from the native area presumably then enter a state of hypersleep. The phrase “cultural colonialism” may be a bit strong, but then again, it may not — I’m white, and try to leave such distinctions up to people with a bit more skin in the game, so to speak — either way, that’s sure how watching A Hologram for the King feels.
Tom Tykwer’s film, adapted from a Dave Eggers novel, joins Tom Hanks in a dream/musical number, where explicitly spelling out the meaning of the Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime” via cutesy CGI communicates that his character has lost his way in life. A messy divorce, daughter he wishes he was closer to, and recent period of financial strain have all driven him to accept a protracted business trip to Saudi Arabia as a sort of new beginning for himself. But then, the environment essentially pushes this rebirth on him; he’s summoned to an undeveloped region of Saudi Arabia to spearhead a presentation on hologram-based telecommunications technology for a little-seen king hoping to create a new Abu Dhabi from desert nothingness. But life has other, more straightforwardly symbolic plans.
As pushover businessman Alan Clay (get it? because he’s still waiting to be molded!), Hanks can’t seem to catch a break. He and his team have been stuck in a tent without A/C, food, or wi-fi, Hanks’ Saudi liaison can’t be pinned down for a meeting, and when the King himself will actually arrive for the presentation is anyone’s guess. In case his aggravating powerlessness in this new environment was not a clear enough analog for his tsuris back home, Tykwer throws in a doubly obvious symbol by afflicting Alan with a cancerous but benign lump that looks like a result of getting smashed with a cartoon mallet. As Alan falls in love with his lady-doctor (Sarita Choudhury) — a real rarity in the area, we’re told — she literally cures him of his cancer-seedlings and figuratively cures him of an increasingly common cinematic ailment known as gardenstateosis.