German director Tom Twyker's adaptation of the novel by Dave Eggers begins with little backstory, if any. IT salesman Alan Clay suddenly wakes up on a flight to Saudi Arabia, having dreamed a cartoonish montage about his current mid-life crisis. Instead of conventional exposition, viewers are given sporadic flashbacks with little context. The flashbacks allow the film to juggle many thematic points, notably Clay's sadness at being unable to pay for his daughter's college tuition and his regret at outsourcing manufacturing labor to China when he worked at Schwinn, allowing China to dominate the bicycle market. The rest of the film follows him as he navigates the labyrinthine bureaucracy of "The King's Metropolis of Economy and Trade" in Jeddah.
Spontaneous observations and anecdotes enhance the strangeness of Clay's predicament as he waits for the titular sovereign to arrive, unable to determine a timeline from any of the king's numerous employees. Characters such as the uncooperative concierge Maha, the Danish payroll employee Hanne, and the king's assistant Karim Al-Ahmed exit the picture as quickly as they are introduced. Clay is abandoned at seemingly every turn. Only the cursorily characterized Yousef, his driver, stays throughout to provide comedic relief. Clay spends half of the film trying to secure some basic infrastructure for his team to operate (food, air conditioning, Wi-Fi), but despite numerous setbacks, he triumphantly pitches his holographic conferencing system to the king.
In the hands of a more conventional filmmaker, the film would have ended here. However, there is little connection between the functional climax of Hologram and the closure that Clay achieves by the end of the film. Despite the anticipation leading up to it, the meeting with the king does little to repair Clay's relationship with his daughter or purge his guilt at laying off the factory workers at Schwinn. However, he does fall in love with the doctor who treats the mysterious cyst in his back, Zahra, whose support offers Clay an oasis of comfort in a desert of confusion.
Does Clay's moment of reckoning come after he sells the teleconferencing system? During his anxiety attack? When he and Zahra kiss underwater? The musical crescendos that suggest buildup of narrative tension merely link tangentially related vignettes, such as his affair with Hanne at the Danish embassy and the detour through Mecca, uncertain which point in the source material to emphasize. Rather than feeling like purposeful subversion of storytelling conventions, this method comes across as unfocused. It seems every moment is exploited for dramatic effect, a technique necessary to keep viewers invested in Clay's self-pity.
Whether the exotic stereotypes are attributable to the director's own prejudices or merely satirize the experience of culture shock from the protagonist's perspective is left to the viewer to interpret. A Hologram for the King does not commit fully to the strangeness of its story, instead depicting an underdog who, despite his mid-life crisis, discovers himself and attains some measure of stability by the film's end.