But Tykwer, the director responsible for Run Lola Run (1998) and the 2006 adaptation of Patrick Susskind’s famously unfilmable Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, likes that sort of thing: grand, stylized, cinematic gestures in pursuit of the subtle and the symbolic. It’s fitting that he’s taken on Dave Eggers’ existential 2012 fable about a 50-something American businessman preparing to present a new 3-D teleconferencing technology to the Saudi monarch. The king keeps not showing up, ditto the other bureaucrats Alan needs to meet. So the salesmen and his team of young tech-heads are stuck with nothing to do
The film remains mostly faithful to Eggers’ story, showing us Alan as he splits his time between the desert and the Saudi city of Jeddah, where he befriends a young, awkward driver named Yousef (Alexander Black), a Danish consultant named Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and a female Saudi doctor named Dr. Hakim (Sarita Choudhury). Through these interactions, we see the languid despair of the country’s youth, the self-destructive hedonism of expats and the sly ways in which cosmopolitan elites get around this society's strict regulations. It’s a fragmented world — divided between city and desert, between religions, classes, men and women — and Tykwer revels in the all-consuming unease. In his film, the display of a Saudi lingerie store in which the female models’ faces have been removed can double as both a symbol of sexual oppression and Antonioni-
In Eggers’ novel, Alan also spends a lot of time in his own head, lost
Alan is both a victim and an enabler: Once the guy who helped ship jobs to China, he’s now at the end of his professional rope, competing with the Chinese himself. Hanks is ideally cast here as an affable guy simultaneously bemused and nervous about his own alienation. He laughs about the fact that nobody gets his Lawrence of Arabia jokes, but we can tell that he’s secretly terrified, that their silence reminds him he's out of step with everything around him.
Tykwer sublimates what Eggers made explicit: the joblessness, the debt, the isolation. He knows the power of an image, a gesture, a brief exchange, so he captures those social themes in flashes, which ironically gives them new power. We get glimpses of the day when Alan had to tell a factory full of Schwinn employees that their jobs were being shipped overseas. Then, late in the film, we see the magic that Alan is now selling: the promise of hologram teleconferencing for the wealthy and powerful.
Nobody need ever be in the same room again for bad news or confrontation: As one of Alan’s co-workers says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but holograms can never hurt me.” A hologram, in an imaginary city, for a king who’s never there. It may start with a big burst of energy, but this is a sad, somber film about