Just about the only person on Earth who should be happy with the opening of A Hologram for the King is David Byrne, the Talking Heads front man whose 1981 single, "Once in a Lifetime," gets reinterpreted by Tom Hanks in a wildly unsuccessful, wildly literal-minded dream sequence. The check is in the mail.

But fans of Dave Eggers' 2012 novel about a late-middle-age American businessman's sales trip to Saudi Arabia can breathe at least a small sigh of relief. Once the intro is over, director Tom Tykwer's adaptation finds a tone and timbre that at least reflects that of the book's. Less gloomy, and without the authorial omniscience that can take a reader inside the head of its protagonist, but with respect and fidelity to the gist of the tale.

And it's a tale that's both personal and global: Hanks' Alan Clay is a divorced dad who doesn't have the money to pay his daughter's college tuition and doesn't have much time left in his downward-arcing career. But here he is on a jet heading for Jeddah, looking at the chance to turn it all around.

Alan, played by Hanks in trusty Everyman mode, is the representative of a company pitching a new IT communications system for a city the Saudi king is building in the desert. Alan's team - a trio of millennial techies (they could be his kids) - are already there, setting up their demo in a big tent by the sea. All Alan has to do is close the deal.

His confidence begins to wane, though. He's jet-lagged, he misses the shuttle to the city under construction, he keeps getting the runaround from the king's people - if they are, indeed, the king's people.

Alan's driver, Yousef (Alexander Black), proves friendly but flaky, with the reliability of his automobile called into question. Alan meets a Danish embassy worker (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who invites him to a party at the ambassador's digs. It's quite the bacchanal.

And then there's this worrisome lump on Alan's back. In Eggers' pitch-perfect parable, the ominous growth becomes a point of obsessive dread; in Tykwer's film, it serves more as a plot point, a way for Alan to meet the beautiful doctor, Zahra (the splendid Sarita Choudhury), with whom he will spend some quality time. That's the main trouble with A Hologram for the King: All the elements of Eggers' story are there; the emotional and psychological resonance is not.

That said, A Hologram for the King - which hits a timely note with its themes of globalization, of outsourcing, of the decline of good old-fashioned American industry - has a certain melancholy comedic appeal. Eggers began his book with a quote from Samuel Beckett: "It is not every day that we are needed."

That quiet existential irony, albeit diluted and distorted, still reverberates in this stranger-in-a-strange-land story.




A Hologram for the King
Directed by Tom Tykwer. With Tom Hanks, Alexander Black, and Sarita Choudhury. Distributed by Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions and Saban Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, nudity, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five, Carmike Ritz Center/NJ, and select area theaters.