Warner Bros. // 1979 // 130 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Roy Hrab (Retired) // February 12th, 2009
"Well, Mr. Gardiner, I must admit that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I've heard in a very, very long time. I admire your good, solid sense. That's precisely what we lack on Capitol Hill." -- President 'Bobby'
Being There, based on the book by Jerzy Kosinski, is an exceptional film; an intelligent and though-provoking comedy that has only become more relevant over time. It represents the pinnacle and last call for two extremely talented people's careers. This was director Hal Ashby's (The Last Detail) final great work before descending into drugs, and the last great performance by Peter Sellers (Dr. Strangelove) before he died.
Being There: Deluxe Edition has been issued by Warner Bros. to celebrate the film's 30th anniversary.
Chance (Sellers) is a middle-aged gardener, working and living at the house of a wealthy man in Washington, DC. Chance is mentally impaired. He likes to watch television and has never been outside the property. All this changes, when the old man dies. Chance must exit the house, leaving the garden behind. Can the simple-minded Chance survive in the outside world? Things look bleak, at first, but a fortuitous accident lands him in the company of the ultra-wealthy and influential Eve (Shirley MacLaine, Bewitched) and Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas, Hud). Within no time, Chance is transformed from a homeless gardener looking for a meal to Chauncey Gardiner, the toast of Washington.
Being There is a much talked about film, its most debated point being one simple question: What is the movie about? Numerous critics have written about religious symbolism, the superficial nature of celebrity and politics, and the destructive nature of television on our attention spans or mental capacity. Some or all of that may be true, but instead I'm going to focus on the themes that resonate strongest with me.
Perhaps the most obvious message is the Zen-like idea that "being there and not being there" is the key to enlightenment and a fulfilling life. Chance is genuine and caring, having no agenda or lofty aspirations. He seeks only food, shelter, and a garden to tend. A little television wouldn't hurt, but he could live without it. There's not much else to the man. He doesn't dwell on the past or ponder the future. Chance is barely aware of the present, reacting only to external stimulus. He's an empty vessel, occupying space, and there in the most basic physical sense of the word. Yet, those traits result in Chance rising quickly into the upper levels of society without any conscious effort, knowledge, or desire to do so. He is there and not there at the same time.
Now Chance's state of mind is not the only factor contributing to his "success." Where he ends up is as much a product of serendipity (i.e., chance) as anything else. Events occur -- the death of the old man, a car accident, Ben's illness, a visit from the president -- and characters are caught up in a confluence of actions over which they have little or no control. The outcomes are significant: Chance becomes a celebrity, Ben dies peacefully, Eve feels loved, and the President (Jack Warden, The Verdict) becomes impotent. Those proceedings come about without any characters hatching a grand plan. Instead, the action is set in motion by the death of a character that never utters a single line of dialogue.
The most important element of the film is the role of Chance as a reflection and echo of his self-absorbed audience. That is the source of the bulk of the film's humor. The human world is a subjective place. Everything we say and do is open to interpretation by those we interact with. When Chance speaks, nobody is listening. They hear what they want to hear. They see what they want to see. He is all things to all people: a genius economist for industrialists; a profound philosopher for the disaffected; a tender lover for the affection starved; a threat to the insecure; and, according to one character, proof that "all you've got to be is white in America to get whatever you want."
Almost nobody in this fable grasps who Chance really is -- a simple gardener -- or that his "wisdom" is literally about gardening. Even those who do know aren't able to do anything with the information. How is this possible? Very simple: virtually everyone he encounters possesses excessive amounts of narcissism. We all seek confirmation of our own beliefs, agendas, and needs. Such self-importance can make us superficial and blind to "reality." The financial crisis presently unspooling is proof positive of how gullible and naive people -- regardless of intellect or wealth -- can be.
As a final point of analysis I will touch on the "controversial" ending. This is what I offer: Given that Chance is a reflective surface, why shouldn't he reflect nature, especially a naturally occurring reflective surface, as well as people?
The performances are tremendous across the board and the ensemble has excellent chemistry. This is critical to the film's success, because it is built on the interactions between the characters. Further, to prevent the film from descending into silliness, everybody plays it straight. That is a credit to not only actors, but also Ashby's unhurried direction, allowing the performers and the story to unfold at a leisurely pace. Sellers is perfectly restrained throughout, never giving the impression that any deep thoughts are going on in Chance's mind. He's so good, it's eerie. Douglas is great as Ben. MacLaine, Warden, and Richard Dysart (L.A. Law), as Ben's doctor, are also first-rate.
Technically, this release is very sound. The video quality is a huge improvement over the 1999 release. The grain, scratches, and other imperfections visible on that edition are gone in this remastering. If picture quality is important to you, it's worth the upgrade. The mono sound is solid, but nothing fancy. The dialogue and the intermittent piano themes are crystal clear.
Unfortunately, the extras are a gigantic disappointment. Ashby, Sellers, Douglas, and Warden have all passed away, putting severe limits on how much could be done, but for some reason Warner Bros. decided to treat those of us with standard DVD players as second class citizens. The only extras on this disc are a theatrical trailer (available on the 1999 edition) and featurette with Illeana Douglas talking about visiting the set with her grandfather, Melvyn Douglas. However, the Blu-ray edition contains deleted scenes, the original ending, and a gag reel. It's not that much, why not include them here? Is it an attempt to strong arm people into upgrading their players? It doesn't make sense. For shame.
They don't make films like this anymore. Being There is subtle, brilliant, and timeless.
The court is issuing a two part verdict.
The creative talents are free to go.
However, Warner Bros. is guilty of needlessly depriving standard DVD owners
of a full slate of extras.
Review content copyright © 2009 Roy Hrab; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* 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
* Theatrical Trailer