A Shock to the System

At the beginning of the exhilarating corporate satire A Shock to the System, the voice of Michael Caine comes on the sound track, soothing and seducing us as it has so many times before. That voice, with its halting cockney sparkle, its tones of ironic civility, is one of the most delicious sounds in movies, as unmistakable a comic signature as Chaplin’s bowlegged shuffle. Once again, Michael Caine is playing a sneak, a rogue, and drawing the audience into a conspiracy with him-the way he did in Alfie (1966), the movie that made him a star, and then 20 years later in Hannah and Her Sisters.

Only this time, Caine’s character is going to go farther- much farther. A Shock to the System is a black comedy played very, very close to the bone. Written by Andrew Klavan, and directed by the veteran independent filmmaker Jan Egleson, it’s a head-on satire of greed and power that’s also one of the most enticingly intimate portraits of American corporate life ever put on-screen.

Caine plays Graham Marshall, a New York advertising executive who begins each day by bidding good-bye to his pampered, demanding wife (Swoosie Kurtz) and riding the train in from suburban Connecticut. The Marshalls have no children, but between mortgage payments and conspicuous consumption (Mrs. Marshall favors an electronic exercise machine), they’re pretty strapped. Graham really needs the promotion he’s up for, and besides, after many years of dedicated toil, he’s earned it. Yet all is not well at the office.

Graham’s company has been snapped up by a conglomerate, and a new breed of executive is taking over. Suddenly, the office is crawling with ruthlessly efficient young climbers like Robert Benham (Peter Riegert), a tight-lipped cad who wins the respect and confidence of his overseers precisely because he treats business as an inhuman profession.

This is all disgusting to Graham. He’s a crack executive who never has let his zest for business stop him from being a nice guy. Now, when he should be reaping the fruits of his career, he’s being treated not as a sage old lion but as a dog.

The corporate office has become the most overworked setting in contemporary movies. By now, we know every contour of boardroom greed, every yuppie slime and covetous CEO. Egleson dips beneath the cliches by playing off the incredible empathy Michael Caine inspires. Right from the start, we’re with Graham. Caine wins us over to the character’s generosity, his wisecracking fellowship with everyone at the office. Watching this world through his eyes, we begin to see how the gray-suited regimentation of corporate life in the takeover era is really an assault on one’s dignity. That’s how it works, and why it works.

Full of bile and fear, Graham decides to take action-meticulous, cold- blooded action. And when he does, he feels good. Calm. Happy. Justified. He almost might be saying, ”So, you want to play without humanity, without rules? I’ll show you no rules.” As if inspired by the Devil himself, Graham starts to beat the cutthroats at their own game.

Caine’s performance is a wonder; it’s as if he were playing Jekyll and Hyde at the same time. You keep rooting for him even as you’re appalled by his behavior, and the film pulls you into deeper and deeper levels of amoral glee. Yet Caine never diminishes the itch in Graham’s soul. That’s what makes him a great actor (and a great comedian). His Graham is a pent-up middle-class drone who never realized he was a drone, and when he finally wakes up to reality, his vengeance is more than sweet. It’s the desperate yet weirdly logical act of a man struggling to save himself.

Egleson is the rare director who loves words and also knows how to tell a story visually. This is his first commercial feature, but he has a wealth of television and small-scale-film experience behind him, and it shows. He gets startlingly fresh performances out of a lot of familiar faces — Swoosie Kurtz as Graham’s spunky, sourpuss wife, John McMartin as his poignantly weary office comrade, and Elizabeth McGovern as the secretary he has a redemptive affair with.

Egleson even taps a heretofore unseen charisma in Will Patton (the demented bureaucrat from No Way Out), who shows a new, easy style as a Columbo-like detective. And Peter Riegert, as the loathsome Robert, proves once again that he’s a deadpan whiz at bringing out the magnetism in repressed, unlikable characters. A Shock to the System is never richer than when Caine and Riegert are facing off over the question of which man will light the other’s cigar. The movie is juicy fun, a high comedy about the personality of power. A

A Shock to the System
  • Movie
  • 91 minutes