Allan Clay (Tom Hanks) is a former Schwinn bike exec whose career went belly up when the company dumped Made in the U.S.A. for China, a decision that still gives him nightmares. Now a middle aged traveling salesman employed by an IT company, he’s dispatched to Saudi Arabia to sell the king on a hologram-driven teleconferencing system for an as yet unbuilt city-in-the-dunes. Why Allan? He once “met” the king’s nephew (in a men’s room). He’s a sweet but soupy figure saddled with a messy divorce (of course), prone to panic attacks (of course), and entirely amiable (it’s Hanks, after all).
Once Allan gets to Saudi he’s immediately up against set-piece obstacles created to spoof cultural differences (the Saudis procrastinate, the kingdom is a no-beer kind of place, and the much-hyped metropolis is a few buildings and a lot of PR). Since bumbling, jet-lagged Allan can’t seem to wake early enough to catch the shuttle, he finds himself with garrulous “chauffeur” Yousef (Alexander Black) who likes Chicago, ELO and Elvis and offers up prepackaged quips like “We don’t have unions, we have Filipinos.” And since Allan is also insecure, a worrywart, he just so happens to have a very large real wart on his back, a lump that will eventually push him into the tender loving care of a Saudi woman doctor (British-Indian actress Sarita Choudhury). And guess what?
Much as German Tom Tykwer, an able director, seeks to create a vintage Hanks romantic comedy with light-hearted cultural clash as a side-order, he can’t get very far with a hackneyed script in which Everyman Hanks is asked to lean on his endearing but one-note “please take me seriously” routine until happily ever after takes over. “You’ve been on the bench for a while,” his impatient boss tells him, and even that gag gets the full monty as Allan can’t seem to find a chair in all Saudi Arabia that doesn’t break when he sits on it.
What we have here is a well-intentioned stranger-in-a-strange land flick with a boy-meets-girl twist that feels like a prosthetic. We’re asked to laugh at the stranger and the land, while letting the former steal our hearts. Hanks does that. He never fails to. But the Saudi side of the exercise is a sham, and that’s a pity since it leaves Hanks’ Allan to inhabit cliché. Based on a considerably more nuanced Dave Eggars novel.