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.
Saudi Arabia itself seems to exist for the benefit of Alan, and neither Tykwer’s script nor direction make a convincing case that the audience should be invested in Alan’s search for his missing mojo. Hanks plays the role as another one of his middlebrow everymen, good for an after-work beer sesh but not someone viewers turn to for meditations on the hollowness of modern life. (And on the topic of casting — why Tykwer would hire such excellent performers as Ben Whishaw and Sidse Babett Knudsen for a cumulative total of approximately five minutes onscreen is beyond comprehension.) As Alan starts to locate the joy in his life again and the glaringly obvious lump shrinks, there’s no sense of cathartic payoff. Whether he stops feeling tired all the time pales in comparison to the exponentially more interesting activity going on the lives surrounding him, such as the doctor who constitutes about a third of a fully-developed character, or the local guide that ceases to exist when Alan’s done with him and rematerializes whenever the man needs something, like an exoticized version of the rom-com BFF trope.
Movies such as A Hologram for the King cater to a specific sort of fantasy among unstimulated adults preparing to enter middle age. The escapism of Eat Pray Love isn’t in the slabs of beef featured in the film, and it’s not in the sensuously photographed food either. (Hey-o.) It lies in the notion that a gnawing emptiness at the center of a life, that queasy fear that there’s not much more to it all than this, can be fixed with nothing more than a fabulous vacation. This is a fiction, and a disingenuous one at that. Alan doesn’t learn anything of worth while in Saudi Arabia; he takes snapshots of some camels and gapes in awe at Mecca as if the holy site was a billboard in Times Square (the casual sacrilege of which is quietly glossed over), but he takes away no new insights because the film has none to offer. Alan’s beset with ennui, and then after long enough, he just isn’t anymore. Would that it were so simple.