Although made and set in the U.S., the nasty, funny semi-fantasy A Shock to the System is very English, embodying as it does a decidedly unsentimental sensibility. Not coincidentally, its star (Michael Caine) and the writer of the novel upon which the movie is based (Simon Brett) are both Englishmen.
It's essentially a tale of transformation. Graham Marshall (Caine), a middle-aged executive, is set to take over his department upon the retirement of his friend and boss, George Brewster (the always-craggy, entertaining character actor John McMartin). Graham is a good guy, an old-style, people-oriented upper exec.
This by itself is plenty to deliver the shock to Graham's system. But there's more. At that same vulnerable time, Graham is involved in a terrible chance accident, from which he unexpectedly emerges unscathed. Shock plus a feeling of magic invulnerability combine in a toxic brew, and Graham … changes. He sets about giving his own shock to the system that has shown its true colors.
Caine does a terrific job as good-into-evil Graham. After a run of roles in which he delivered workmanlike but really just coasting-along performances, Caine uses his impressive storytelling skills to full advantage in A Shock to the System. It's a welcome change to see him breathe life -- malignant life -- into a character.
Elizabeth McGovern gets second billing in A Shock to the System as Stella, Graham's junior co-worker and friend. Long-suffering Stella has clearly always been too good a person to act on her obvious interest in the married Graham, but when a change in circumstance makes him available, Stella falls for him, or for the man she thinks he still is -- the man he was before his change. McGovern's portrayal of the smitten Stella is utterly captivating because it is subtly layered. Look at the expressiveness of her performance:
After dinner, Stella looks out of her taxi at the object of her affection to check to see if she's dreaming. McGovern is a genius at using tone of voice and facial expression to perfect effect. (When Elizabeth McGovern plays a woman in love, the result is, to say the least, adorable.)
After some fear that Graham is not really interested, Stella has just been asked out again, and is clearly pleased.
A Shock to the System has its problems. Some of the exposition is so clumsy that it jars you right out of the movie and a few of the characters, most notably Leslie, Graham's wife (Swoosie Kurtz in a thankless role) are cardboard. But for all that it is a compelling, funny and hair-raising tale. Not for those who cherish happy endings. Recommended.
Look for Samuel L. Jackson in a small supporting role.
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