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ICYMI: A Shock to the System (1990)


Comedy is hard: Black Comedy is near impossible. Additionally, Black Comedy is also sometimes hard to define. For me, it involves finding humor in characters indulging in their darker nature via crime, usually murder, but it also requires having an audience willing to go there because they have pondered such macabre concepts themselves. In this regard, I believe Black Comedy is a truly symbiotic experience. The successful ones like The War of the Roses, Heathers, and To Die For are diamonds in the rough willing to be uncompromising and risk alienating the audience with just how far they will go. But then are the ones like Very Bad Things and Observe and Report that go beyond being dark into levels of sadism that don’t just blur the line between comedy and tragedy, they obliterate it with a rocket launcher.

1990’s A Shock to the System is a deliciously evil tale of climbing the corporate ladder, by any means necessary. And the fact that it stars a charmingly wicked Michael Caine should be more than enough to tantalize you. Caine stars as Graham Marshall, a mid-level advertising employee who finds his anticipated promotion taken by a younger exec on the rise (a slimy Peter Riegert). Graham finds no comfort on the home front from his materialistic wife (a wonderfully shrill Swoosie Kurtz). One day, Graham gets into an altercation with a panhandler with mortal consequences and is amazed when he gets away with it and feels no remorse. In another film, we would see Caine’s sociopathic development as a cautionary tale but in A Shock to the System we find ourselves captivated and possibly even rooting for him.

The film also stars Elizabeth McGovern as a sweet co-worker who is Graham’s sympathetic ear. Their burgeoning romance may be a bit of a stretch, but their scenes together are refreshingly engaging evolving into tension when she becomes aware of Graham’s true nature. Highly regarded character actor Will Patton is also entertaining as Lieutenant Laker who believes he has a bead on Graham, asking some Columbo-esque “afterthought” questions. In a priceless exchange, Laker asks Graham about a recently deceased superior to which Graham responds, “He wasn’t my superior – he was my boss.” Caine delivers this line and so many others with just the right balance of humor, honesty, and hidden malevolence.

The film is an adaptation of mystery writer Simon Brett’s novel, best known for the Charles Paris series, and you can definitely feel the sense of literary refinement. I am sure it helps that screenwriter Andrew Klavin just happens to be a Edgar Award winning mystery writer himself (1984’s Mrs. White). And director Jan Egelson finds a way to keep things moving at a brisk pace, keeping the audience breathless with anticipation of Graham Marshall’s next move.

Willem Dafoe was once asked if he preferred playing heroes or villains to which he responded, “Don’t make no difference, everybody thinks they’re righteous.” Michael Caine has certainly made a storied career of playing both types with equal power and ease. But never has he crafted such an invitingly mischievous and surprisingly sympathetic character than that of Graham Marshall in A Shock to the System.

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