By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 2, 2021)
Murray: Nick, in a moment you are going to see a horrible thing.
Nick: What’s that?
Murray: People going to work.
– from A Thousand Clowns, screenplay by Herb Gardner
Jonathan Lute: [after Quint has terrifyingly smashed up his entire office with an axe]
Andrew, darling, you’re always threatening to resign…
– from I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘is Name, screenplay by Peter Draper
Johnny: All right, listen. Does anybody mind if I scream here? Is that okay with you all? Cause I’d feel better for it. It won’t take long.
– from Naked, screenplay by Mike Leigh
It is clear from the outset that Joseph, the protagonist of Aneil Karia’s deeply unsettling yet curiously liberating drama Surge, would feel better for it if he could just …SCREAM.
As he wends through a busy Stansted Airport terminal to his gate security job, Joseph (a mesmerizing Ben Whishaw) displays all the tell-tale signs of a ticking time bomb. He’s relatively young but looks haggard beyond his thirty-something years. He’s twitchy and furtive, with a thousand-yard stare that suggests his soul vacated his body some time ago.
After a dreary shift patting down and scanning an endless parade of travelers, Joseph commutes back to his low-rent London flat, where he plops into his armchair, bathed in the sickly light of a droning TV while wolfing a bland microwaved dinner. He has odd eating tics; when he puts a fork in his mouth he reflexively chomps down as if attempting to bite it in half, and when he takes a drink, he looks as though he’s trying to chew on the glass.
He seems …tense.
Something has got to give, and the trigger is a belated birthday dinner with his elderly parents. He appears to have a strained relationship with his cold and gruff father (Ian Gelder). His mother (Ellie Haddington, who stole the show in the recent 4-part PBS Mystery! miniseries Guilt) is more empathetic, but also shows signs of someone who has suffered years of bullying (verbal, emotional…or worse). After a joyless repast, mum serves the cake, and as dad continues to glower and scowl, Joseph finally breaks-literally.
“Don’t you get blood on my carpets!” mum screeches in shock and confusion as Joseph flees after finally succeeding in chewing through the glass (hey…practice makes perfect).
A warning-if (like me) you are prone to anxiety attacks, the ensuing 2/3 of the film has the *potential* to trigger one (telling myself “It’s only a movie” kept me grounded). Put another way, Joseph’s subsequent frenetic bacchanal of self-liberation is a “re-birthing” well outside the parameters of clinical supervision (and decidedly anti-social in nature), all rendered in a dizzying cinematic style reminiscent of Run Lola Run and Trainspotting.
While Rita Kalnejais and Rupert Jones’ screenplay does toy with sociopolitical tropes and character motivations that cross over with Taxi Driver, Naked, Falling Down, and the more recent Joker, Surge is anything but a rote retread of the well-trod “disenfranchised white male going off the deep end” narrative. I found it closer in spirit to Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66, a film that, while equally unsettling, confounds your expectations at every turn.
I’m an Electric Lampshade could be viewed as a kinder, gentler Surge, or perhaps a variation on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Billed as a “documentary-narrative hybrid”, writer-director John Clayton-Doyle’s film centers on a quiet, straight-arrow corporate accountant (Doug McCorkle) who surprises his longtime co-workers by using his retirement party to “come out” as an aspiring pop star. So much for golfing and fishing…
Doug brings down the house with a professionally choreographed and produced video featuring him singing and dancing. Actually, the latter part is perhaps best described as “undulating”, as Doug undulates in that oddly earnest yet arrhythmic manner that 60-year-old men tend to undulate on the dance floor at weddings and bar mitzvahs (that’s why I don’t dance at weddings and bar mitzvahs these days…as a public service).
A co-worker offers Doug a business card for a “finishing school for performers” in the Philippines, adding that if he is serious about giving this pop star thing a go, he should check it out. Casting his fate to the wind, and with the full blessing of his wife (Regina McCorkle) Doug embarks to the Philippines to pursue his dream. What his co-worker failed to mention was that all the students are drag queens (but Doug is cool with that).
There’s not much more to the narrative; Doug hangs out in the Philippines for a spell, gets his first professional singing and dancing gig doing a TV commercial for a Filipino yogurt company, and then heads back to the States to prepare for his concert debut in Mexico. The concert takes up the final 15 or 20 minutes of the film (it feels like 3 hours).
It’s all good-natured enough I suppose, but unfortunately, our aspiring “electric lampshade” McCorkle has the charisma of a night light. And the original music (which is critical, as it runs through most of the film) is duller than dishwater (generic EDM). I have nothing against pursuing one’s dreams …but sitting through this could be a nightmare for some viewers.