Warner Bros. // 1979 // 130 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // February 3rd, 2009
Life is a state of mind.
Based on Jerzy Kosinski's novel, Being There was a passion project for late actor Peter Sellers (The Pink Panther), who lobbied for almost nine years to play the lead. The 1979 film is about a genial simpleton who uses moneyed connections and vague folksy wisdom to ascend to the highest levels of power in America. For some reason, Warner Bros. thought that was relevant enough to make it one of its early releases on Blu-ray.
Chance (Sellers) is a middle-aged, mentally impaired gardener who lives and works on a lavish estate in Washington, D.C. When the estate's elderly owner passes away, Chance finds himself without employment or a place to live. He heads off the estate for the first time in his life and is promptly hit by a limousine. Though not seriously hurt, Chance is taken home by the limousine's socialite passenger, Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine, Postcards From the Edge), who introduces him to her husband, Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas, Hud), who in turn introduces Chance to his powerful circle of friends, up to and including the president of the United States (Jack Warden, Used Cars).
Here's the thing: These Washington plutocrats don't realize Chance is a destitute simpleton. They think his name is Chauncey Gardner and, judging by his expensive suits (which Chance purloined from the estate), assume he's a rich businessman. Chance's incessant comments about gardening don't clue them in; they think he's just speaking in profound parables. The question is: How far up the Washington power structure can Chance go without ever having a clue about what's going on around him?
I don't think any film from the 1970s is as relevant to modern society as Being There. In fact, Being There seems to be one of those rare pieces of art whose relevance increases with time. It was a well-regarded film when it was released; now it is essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand popular discourse in America.
The plot of Being There is deceptively simple. Most astute viewers should be able to predict the course of the film by end of the first act. Yet there is such elegance in the way Kosinski (who also wrote the screenplay) and director Hal Ashby create a near-perfect depiction of human folly. Most everyone Chance encounters assumes he is rich and intelligent, and so they interpret whatever he says and does to fit with this lazy assumption. Of course, these strained interpretations produce comedy, such as when the Soviet ambassador assumes Chance knows Russian because he awkwardly laughed at a comment in the foreign language, but these interpretations also demonstrate how easy it is to be duped, how easily we allow ourselves to be duped, and how rarely we challenge assumptions.
Being There has often been referenced in political discussions, but its value can be applied far more generally. Though we laugh at how the film's high-powered socialites fall under Chance's spell, they all seem to be exhibiting normal human behavior. Chauncey is supposed to be a brilliant economist, so when he drones on about his garden, that must be a metaphor for the economy -- and since he's brilliant, it must be a brilliant metaphor at that. Time and again, Kosinski's script (and novel) set up brilliant set pieces that show the absurd lapses in logic people employ to maintain their assumptions. Yet, as absurd as they can be, they sadly ring all too true.
Of course, credit for much of the film's success must also go to Sellers, who gives what might be the performance of his career as Chance. Though Sellers rose to fame through a series of broad comedic performances, he somehow manages to subdue his entire persona here. In fact, Sellers labored over this role, working with dialect coaches to give his accent a nondistinct flatness. He moves his body slowly and deliberately, employing subtle facial movements, all to make Chance the perfect character for an audience to project onto. It's a performance that is calibrated precisely, and a phenomenal end to an already distinguished comedic career. (We're going to ignore The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu).
Surprisingly, for a comedy that's almost thirty years old, Being There looks phenomenal on Blu-ray. In constructing the film, Ashby used few close-ups, instead choosing to use master shots to convey the austerity and power of Chance's surroundings. The large estate of the Rand family looks almost awe-inspiring in 1080p. The wide shots taken inside the mansion also add a richness and beauty to the film that was impossible to appreciate on VHS or DVD.
The sound is impressive, though is only used to any effect with the two great musical cues: "Thus Spoke Zarathustra," when Chance first ventures out into the city, and the Cheech and Chong song "Basketball Jones," when he is on his way to the Rand estate. All in all, for an understated film from the 1970s, Being There looks amazing.
As far as the extras go, Being There doesn't offer much, but there are some Blu-ray exclusives, including a newly discovered alternate ending. The carryover from the DVD is the featurette "Memories From Being There," which is pretty much an interview with actress Illeana Douglas (whose grandfather was Melvyn Douglas) about what it was like being on the set of Being There, and how impressed she is with the film. The two new scenes are minor, but the one of Chance watching some young men play basketball is amusing. The alternate ending is interesting only for how weak it is compared to the famous (or infamous) real conclusion to the film. Lastly, there is a gag reel that, considering how angry Sellers was about his outtakes being put over the end credits, seems a little inappropriate.
Sellers famously fought against the inclusion of outtakes of himself over the end credits, and rightfully so. Ashby has a great track record as a director, but his decision to have the final images of his film consist of Sellers cracking up out of character is inscrutable. It hardly ruins Being There, but how many other films that take themselves seriously run goofs over the end credits?
There are plenty of films that entertain without being profound in any way. Then there are "message" movies that strive so hard to educate their audience that they're unbearable to watch. Being There is a rare film that is enjoyable, but also a brilliant social satire that can generate hours of conversation. Indeed, in college, I once spent an hour just talking about the movie's controversial ending with a record store clerk.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Alternate Ending (new!)
* Deleted Scenes (new!)
* Gag Reel