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Being There is a wonderful and highly original comedy. It moves at a deliberate pace, depends on careful nuances of writing and performance, and pays off with big laughs in the oddest places. It's the crowning achievement of star Peter Sellers, who excels in a role he'd wanted to play for years. The movie also represents a career high for its director, Hal Ashby, a seventies success story with five straight hits to his credit. Warner Home Video's new Blu-ray presents this elegant & eccentric show in a dazzling HD transfer.
Author Jerzy Kosinski's script (from his novel) must have been a tough sell to the studios; we can imagine the movie being green-lit solely on the insistence of Ashby, a comedy veteran whose first films The Landlord and Harold and Maude defined "out there" humor. Being There relies almost completely on the talents of Peter Sellers, which lately had been wasted on increasingly inane Pink Panther movies. Ironically, the success of Sellers' Inspector Clouseau character made the star bankable again. Without that push, the almost abstract comedy Being There would never have been filmed.
Sellers plays Chance, an unnervingly serene simpleton who has lived out his life in the walled compound of a wealthy man, working as a gardener. Chance has been raised and protected in seclusion, knowing only his master and the housekeeper Louise (Ruth Attaway). Chance reacts almost in slow motion to verbal communication, searching for the few words and concepts he understands. Television provides his sole contact with the world beyond the garden. He watches TV constantly, sometimes imitating people's hand gestures and actions. He understands his gardening tools, his television remotes, and little else.
Events force Chance out into the real world, alone. He's fascinated and confused by things he's seen on TV but doesn't really understand: basketball, rides in cars, young street thugs. He asks a black woman out shopping if she'll make him some lunch. We expect Chance to either become a mugging victim or be taken to a mental hospital. He's instead picked up by Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine) the wife of Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas), an ailing multi-millionaire, philanthropist and political kingmaker. Poised and relaxed, Chance answers questions with quiet phrases, delivered with sincere concern. He filters everything he hears through the one activity he knows and understands, gardening. That, along with a good heart and a gift for mimicry, insures that Chance is completely misinterpreted by almost everyone he meets. Eve takes Chance for a reserved, refined gentleman named Chauncey Gardiner. Benjamin is convinced that Chance is a worldly-wise businessman above the common fray. "Chauncey's" non-sequitur responses are taken as sophisticated wit.
Benjamin decides to introduce Chauncey to the visiting President (Jack Warden), casting media-driven ripples across the political landscape. Unable to find any record of Rand's new friend, the FBI and CIA conclude that Chauncey is so powerful, his identity has been carefully erased from the public record. Chauncey charms TV audiences and foreign dignitaries with his meaningless allusions to "growth in the garden", and is immediately embraced by Eve and Benjamin as their most valued friend. Meanwhile, the now unemployed housekeeper Louise is disgusted when she sees Chance on TV: "Yes, sir, all you've gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want."
Not soon after Chance first steps from his master's house (to a jazz cover of Also sprach Zarathustra, the theme familiar from 2001: A Space Odyssey) , we see him in a telephoto angle, walking on a concrete median amid busy Washington, D.C. traffic. With his umbrella and bowler hat, Chance immediately reminds us of paintings by the surrealist René Magritte. Being There is a prime absurdist comedy. General audiences have often responded to comedies and fantasies with surreal content, even if only subconsciously: Duck Soup, King Kong, the musicals of Busby Berkeley. Chance is a definite surreal hero. He ventures forth ignorant of the perils of our modern world, and instead of being destroyed, is carried aloft by sheer dumb luck and serendipitous fortune.
Jerzy Kozinski's slightly subversive script reinforces the notion that the air is thin at society's higher elevations. Housemaids and street punks immediately see Chance for what he is -- "Shortchanged by The Lord and dumb as a jackass." But the very rich are quick to misread Chance's utterly vacant poise as wisdom and reserve. Isolated within their palatial country estate, Eve and Benjamin are emotionally needy. "Chauncey" is a cipher, a blank slate, a Rorschach inkblot ready to reflect whatever qualities they want to see. Benjamin finds an intellectual equal in Chauncey, while Eve discovers an understanding and passionate soul mate. The misunderstandings proceed with a maddening logic, until almost everything Chance does or says, no matter how minor, is a laugh line.
Former editor Hal Ashby scales and times his film to Peter Sellers' remarkably controlled performance. Being There is a high-wire act, a shaggy dog story; we marvel that it can stay fresh and funny for over two hours running. As fundamentally absurd as the horror film The Birds or the romantic fantasy Peter Ibbetson, Ashby and Sellers' film remains faithful to its irrational premise. The poetic finish is a final jest, like the car driving away through the bird-landscape at the end of Hitchcock's thriller: "We've taken this idea to its logical conclusion; we've painted ourselves into a corner and there's absolutely no way out. That's all, folks!"
The film has an exemplary supporting cast. Shirley MacLaine misinterprets Chauncey's every word and is turned on by what she thinks are his amorous attentions: "I like to watch." Her orgasmic gyrations are hilarious, yet are also a completely convincing sex scene. The elderly Melvyn Douglas caps a fifty-year career as a master of comedy, never losing his composure opposite Sellers. Richard Dysart is the doctor who slowly comes to realize Chauncey's true nature, and Jack Warden is diverting as a President suddenly made impotent because Chauncey tells him he looks small on Television. Richard Basehart and David Clennon have important smaller roles.
"Being There" is an apt title for a film whose motto is that "Life is a state of mind." The title also expresses the film's unique appeal, one difficult to convey in words: "I guess you had to be there." A viewer arriving late at a screening of Being There might be forgiven for concluding that the movie makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. That's a reaction that a surrealist would cherish!
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray edition of Being There reveals visual qualities unseen in the film since its theatrical run. Ace cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion) lights for drama, not comedy, emphasizing the enormity of the Rand house (villa? palace?) with its high-ceiling rooms made of rich dark woods. Audio is in Dolby Digital, with alternate English, French and Spanish mono tracks.
The extras include two brief deleted scenes and a "Gag Reel" that turns out to be more outtakes of the flubbed-line setup used for a few laughs behind the end credits. Peter Sellers objected strongly to the inclusion of the bloopers on the grounds that they broke the film's unique spell. He was nominated for an acting Oscar but the winner that year was Dustin Hoffman for Kramer vs. Kramer. A less effective alternate ending is included along with a trailer.
The Laurent Bouzereau featurette Memories from Being There is really a biographical tribute to co-star Melvyn Douglas by his granddaughter, actress Illeanna Douglas. At one point Ms. Douglas elaborates on a perceived religious subtext, looking for symbols and shortcuts to explain the film's puzzle. The whole point of Being There is that the only reality we know is the one we reshape to fit our subjective preconceptions.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Being There Blu-ray rates:
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