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A Shock to the System

July 5, 2010

Michael Caine - A Shock to the System

The 1990 comedy-thriller A Shock to the System is easily overlooked because its triumphs aren’t obvious and neither are its flaws. The film, which has a 50% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is polarizing with critics who found Caine’s flat affect confusing, despite its importance to the narrative framework Of the critics who did “get it”, Roger Ebert provides the best analysis of Caine’s nuanced performance:

Caine is a splendid movie actor, a consummate professional who is fun to watch in any film, because there is always a layer of irony and fun right there below the surface. That makes him especially entertaining as a villain; his charm makes his sins seem permissible, or at least understandable. He rarely plays villains we hate. More often, we want him to get away with his sins. Since the sins he commits in “A Shock to the System” are wicked ones, that sets up a nice tension inside the movie. We see things from his point of view, we are invited to identify with him and yet when the Connecticut detective comes calling, we think it’s about time.

Ebert is bang on in his assessment of why I found the film so darn enjoyable. Much like his American cohort Gene Hackman, Caine’s screen persona is littered with lovable scamps (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), affable cads (Alfie) and noble douchebags (Get Carter). It is Caine’s ability to encourage audiences to identify with even his most deplorable character, which proves the most satisfying aspect of A Shock to the System. The titular “shock to the system” awakens Graham Marshall’s sleeping dog who then spends the rest of the film looking for bones to gnaw on and then subsequently bury. Mild mannered white guys who go off the rails – I see you, Falling Down – are certainly no novelty. Heck, many of Caine’s films embody this trope. But what makes Shock to the System infinitely better is how freaking funny it is and how well all the best aspects of the tropes – the haranguing spouse, the oily upstart and the meddling authority figure – are used in service of the narrative. Director Jan Egleson, who wandered away from his television roots provides satisfying, skillful, but not especially exciting direction; that’s all the film requires. Part of what made this film a tad more enjoyable than Deathtrap was the awareness I was watching a Lumet film and all the mystique, which surrounds that. A Shock to the System‘s TV movie-of-the-week feel doesn’t actually bother me. In fact it’s another element of the film that increases its fun.

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2010 3:09 pm

    I love that screen shot… Caine talks about how the “sad” look in his eyes (caused by a childhood condition, blepharochalasis) has benefited him, and I think it certainly helps him in this film.

    The titular “shock to the system” awakens Graham Marshall’s sleeping dog who then spends the rest of the film looking for bones to gnaw on and then subsequently bury.

    LOLOL

    One of my favorite Michael Caine roles is the boozy professor in Educating Rita. He’s such a wonderful bastard.

  2. July 5, 2010 3:25 pm

    I love that screen shot… Caine talks about how the “sad” look in his eyes (caused by a childhood condition) has benefited him, and I think it certainly helps him in this film.

    He is great at using his face to do all his “dirty business”, while remaining utterly effective as an earnest guy. He’s really great in this film and it seems the flat affect was a challenge for the actor who is well known for his animated performances.

  3. July 5, 2010 3:56 pm

    File this tidbit from Mr. Caine’s Wikipedia under “when bad movies happen to good actors” —

    The 1990s were a lean time for Caine, as he found good parts harder to come by. A high point came when he played Ebenezer Scrooge in the critically-acclaimed [sic] Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), which he considers to be one of his most memorable roles.

    Yeah when your career is “rehabilitated” by co-starring for a cast of puppets, you’ve pretty much hit rock bottom.

  4. July 5, 2010 4:07 pm

    Critically acclaimed? Where are these so-called critics? I’m sorry, but this is scarier than Jaws: Revenge.

  5. July 5, 2010 4:17 pm

    Here’s an old SCTV piece — My Bloody Hand — that sends up Sir Michael’s reputation for stinkers:

  6. evmaroon permalink
    July 5, 2010 4:56 pm

    I have never heard of this movie! Thanks for this lovely write-up…nobody gets me to add to my queue like you do, Snarky. Is it as good as Deathtrap? I love Deathtrap.

  7. July 5, 2010 5:07 pm

    It is! I like it a little bit better executed, storywise, but the acting in Deathtrap is much better all around. Caine is brilliant in A Shock to the System, but there are few actors who are uneven.

  8. July 5, 2010 6:46 pm

    It’s true! No one racks up more Netflix queue recommendations for me than Snarky.

    Also, this made me think there needs to be some sort of “Snark to the System”

  9. July 5, 2010 7:46 pm

    I was toying with the idea of a comparison/contrast post about Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto called “A Spock to the System.”

  10. July 5, 2010 7:52 pm

    Please write “A Spock to the System”!!! LOL.

  11. July 5, 2010 9:32 pm

    As I will watch anything with Michael Caine in it (I am, after all, one of the 5 people who has seen Jaws: the Revenge more than once), I’ll have to look this one up (I don’t yet Netflix, but I’m hoping to rectify that soon).

    Ok, so, I can’t help but love A Muppet Christmas Carol, just like I love their version of Treasure Island. Maybe it’s my childhood of Muppet adoration, or Muppets combined with awesome actors (the aforementioned Mr. Caine, and Tim Curry—SQUEEEEEE!— as Long John Silver).

  12. July 5, 2010 9:59 pm

    I love Muppet Christmas Carol too. I just remember going, “Whoa, Michael Caine.” when I was 17 – when it came out – and somehow knowing this was a bit of a drop from his Hannah and her Sisters Oscar triumph.

  13. July 5, 2010 10:30 pm

    Elizabeth McGovern. You have to mention her! And really, I always felt Ms. McGovern should have been at least as big a star as Winona, but she just never connected with a director or a script that could really show her range. Now, the best she can be is a supporting actress in a Hallmark Hall of Fame, and for that, I am truly sorry.

    I found this movie flawed in the same way a Bugs Bunny cartoon is flawed. Caine had no adversary that could challenge him! Sure, it was fun watching him execute (haha) his plan, but it all seemed so easy for him it was like eating cotton candy… the substance instantly dissolved and though it was sweet, there wasn’t much to it. Now if McGovern had been able to battle Caine… that would have been epic!

  14. July 6, 2010 12:35 am

    Elizabeth McGovern. You have to mention her! And really, I always felt Ms. McGovern should have been at least as big a star as Winona, but she just never connected with a director or a script that could really show her range. Now, the best she can be is a supporting actress in a Hallmark Hall of Fame, and for that, I am truly sorry.

    For some reason I thought it was Elizabeth Perkins. I often confuse the two actresses. How embarrassing.

  15. July 6, 2010 1:11 am

    @Snarky’s Machine It’s funny, because from a physical look standpoint, Elizabeth McGovern was often confused for Kimberly Williams (who later added Paisley to her name), who starred in the “Father of the Bride” movies with Steve Martin (but really had no chops at all, not even in the same league with the multifaceted McGov). She got confused with Elizabeth Perkins as you noted (who was also a capable actress that I *would* rank up there with her fellow Elizabeth), but Perkins often came off as an antagonist in many of her roles, including her most well known part, opposite Tom Hanks in “Big.” And maybe toss in Elizabeth Montgomery just to confuse things even further!

    McGovern was a stage actress a a brilliant one and that always serves movies and television so well. “Ragtime!” “Once Upon a Time in America!” Siskel & Ebert said she was the only good thing about John Hughes’ “She’s Having A Baby,” and that starred Kevin Bacon!

  16. July 6, 2010 1:51 am

    McGovern was a stage actress a a brilliant one and that always serves movies and television so well. “Ragtime!” “Once Upon a Time in America!” Siskel & Ebert said she was the only good thing about John Hughes’ “She’s Having A Baby,” and that starred Kevin Bacon!

    Ha! She was amazing in “She’s Having a Baby,” though I also think both sets of parents gave fine performances. Which Libby was the dour roomie in “About Last Night,”?

  17. evmaroon permalink
    July 6, 2010 6:45 am

    Was Elizabeth Perkins the lady in Big? I get so confused…

  18. July 6, 2010 8:35 am

    @evmaroon, yes, Elizabeth Perkins was in Big. different Elizabeths! But damn, where is Elizabeth Perkins these days? She reminds me of the love child of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Judy Davis.

    And Snarky, I’m loving these Michael Caine posts and I just put his autobiography on reserve at the library!!

  19. July 6, 2010 5:42 pm

    @evmaroon, yes, Elizabeth Perkins was in Big. different Elizabeths! But damn, where is Elizabeth Perkins these days? She reminds me of the love child of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Judy Davis.

    I think she got peaced off Weeds. Or was that Libby McGovern?

  20. July 6, 2010 5:43 pm

    @raymond, excellent move. He’s a wonderful storyteller, plenty of LOL moments and lessons learnt.

  21. July 6, 2010 6:03 pm

    And Snarky, I’m loving these Michael Caine posts and I just put his autobiography on reserve at the library!!

    The book is worth it for the “Terry” Stamp stories alone! Terry Scamp is probably more like it.

  22. July 6, 2010 7:24 pm

    Oh gosh… I confuse those Elizabeth’s a lot.. I know them when I see them, but unless I have a visual, I’m totally confused.

    @Snarky’s: Elizabeth Perkins is/was on Weeds.

  23. July 6, 2010 10:26 pm

    oh yeah, that’s right, she was on Weeds. I liked her sometimes on that. That kinda describes the whole show though — I liked it sometimes. That got me through season three and then I just cancelled it in my mind and stopped watching.

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