“Had no brains at all. Was stuffed with rice pudding between th’ ears. Shortchanged by the Lord, and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you’ve gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want. Gobbledy-gook!”
Sometimes I have no idea what make leads me to watching a movie. Here’s a movie where I had no idea who was in it, no idea who wrote it, no idea who directed it and no idea what it was about. Even the title is pretty generic and could be almost anything. Buggers me how I even came to have a copy of it. However it happened, I saw Being There, and I’m pretty glad that I did.
Chance (Peter Sellers) is a sheltered, naïve man child. I guess if the movie was being more overt, it would declare he has some form of autism or Asperger’s, but Being There isn’t that kind of movie. The live in gardener for a mansion owned by the ‘Old Man’, Chance only ever has contact with his employer and the resident maid. When the Old Man dies, Chance is forced into the streets of Washington DC, into the real world, seemingly for the first time ever.
After a minor incident with a limo, the passenger, Shirley McClain’s Eve, takes him in to her own mansion, shared with her dying husband, Melvyn Douglas as Ben. In their cynical world of business and politics, Chance’s innocent and always totally literal comments about his love of gardening and other mundanities, constantly get interpreted as some deep, philosophical commentary on the world around him. It’s not long until even the President of the United States is hanging on Chance’s every word.
Sometimes those literal words are a little too convenient and on the nose, shoehorned in there to keep the story moving, but that’s only a small misstep that’s pretty easy to look past with everything else that makes Being There immensely watchable.
Sellers actively pursued this role and waited years before any studio would fund it, and it seems like it was worth the wait and pursuit. Famous for being lost in his characters, famous for some pretty wide eyed and innocent comedy, like the Pink Panther movies and The Party, Sellers had a certain child-like innocence to his performances that makes his casting in this main role so perfect.
At a little over two hours, that child-like innocence does start to wear kind of thin, but it never quite gets to the point of irritating. Again, that’s a testament to the work of Sellers. I can’t imagine any other actor being able to sustain this character for even half as long without becoming grating, cartoonish and just too much to bear.
Being There is one of those movies that all comes down to one, central performance. The story is fun and light and pops along at a good pace, but it’s secondary to how Sellers brings it all to life. If you like Peter Sellers and his performance as Chance, you’ll love Being There. But if you find him a little annoying or over the top in the opening scenes, turn the move off straight away, because he’s only just getting warmed up in those early minutes, and Being There would be one long, bumpy ride.