There’s a trick to a dark comedy. There has to be a fundamental wrongness about the situation — else it isn’t dark — and yet there also has to be something likeable about the protagonist. Maybe it’s a genuinely good person in a bad situation. Or maybe it’s somebody who isn’t so good, but manages to be entertaining. In director Jan Egleson’s 1990 film A Shock to the System, the latter approach is taken, and a large part of its success can be put at the feet of star Michael Caine.
Caine plays Graham Marshall, a British-American living in New York and working at a large corporate conglomerate. Caine also narrates the film, although his narration is in the third person. This helps to create a sense of disassociation from his character, which is appropriate, as Graham is very much disassociated from life. His wife Leslie (Swoosie Kurtz) seems to respect his position more than she respects him, and that position is quickly shown to be going nowhere. He’s passed up for a promotion he’s been bucking for when his friend and superior George (John McMartin) retires, and it’s given to a younger man. Graham feels overlooked. He works hard at his job, and nobody notices. He does right by his underlings, and nobody notices. He seethes with frustration at the injustice, and nobody notices. He gets in an altercation with a bum and inadvertently shoves him in front of an oncoming train… and nobody notices.
When Michael Caine tells you to go away, you go away.
It soon becomes apparent that Graham has experienced a psychotic break. He finds the act of getting away with murder to not be a weight on his conscience, but an alleviation of a weight he had felt for years, from being powerless over his own life. He fantasizes about using “magic” to deal with all of his problems. He sets about fixing his life without the chains of morality holding him back.
Part of the reason this works as a dark comedy is that the people who surround him are mostly unsympathetic characters. There’s his personnel officer Stella (Elizabeth McGovern), but she’s the only one in the office or in his home life who seems to have any respect for Graham. His wife is a bit abrasive, always nice but with a passive-aggressive undertone when it comes to money and power. When he leaves for a business trip the day after letting her know he didn’t get the promotion, she says she “forgives [him] for failing”. His new boss, Bob Benham (Peter Riegert) is a corporate slimeball, the kind of guy who happily tried to kiss ass to Graham when it looked like Graham would get the job and then does his best to render Graham obsolete in his current position as soon as he outranks him. The actors in the supporting roles all fit into odious little niches that serve to highlight how dehumanizing Graham’s life has been up until this point. And Graham himself is played to the hilt by Michael Caine, who makes him quietly disturbed but never out of control, and always with just a hint of laughter underneath the surface. Graham finally has the power, and he likes it; and the audience, while knowing everything Graham is doing is wrong, can’t help but admire the panache he has while going about it.
When playing at cutthroat corporate politics, try to avoid the guy who might take the term literally.
A Shock to the System may not be one of Michael Caine’s most prominent films, but it’s a pretty good entry in his filmography. He gets to leverage a few different emotions into his portrayal of Graham as he gradually slides down the slippery slope, and it’s a quietly funny take on a concept that would have worked just as well as a dramatic film.