Twice have I seen Being There (1979), and twice have I not enjoyed the experience. I do not get it. Usually, when I see a movie that features a protagonist with a lack of brain power, I find them entertaining or funny, or both. Most times, that character, if they are the main one, will have some moment where they realize that their limited view of the world is an impediment in some way, and they undergo a change. You know, a character arc. The plot is what drives this change. It works well in films like Clueless (1995) or Legally Blonde (2001). In them, the leads have preconceived notions, have them challenged by the events of the film, and come away from it a better person. Since these are comedies, they usually fall in love, too. This is a great point to remember, and one I was recently reminded of by Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) in Stranger Than Fiction (2006). There is none of that in Being There, and the title says it all. The entire film is a one-joke, monotone piece of garbage, that is simply “there.”
I could end this review of Being There now, but I will keep going for form’s sake. The first “there” is the home of a wealthy person living in Washington D.C. The house has been there for some time, as has the middle-aged gardener, Chance (Peter Sellers). In fact, it is the only life he has apparently known. Hence, when the old man who owns the house dies, and estate attorney Thomas Franklin (David Clennon) informs Chance he must vacate the premises. For the first time Chance must find his way on his own. There are a few things you need to know about Chance. First, he is an idiot. He cannot read. He cannot write. Seriously. Secondly, he is obsessed with watching television, and this informs many of his behaviors and what little understanding he has of the world. What television has not taught him, he filters the rest through his knowledge of gardening. Finally, and this takes him incredulously far, he is smartly dressed. Turned out on the streets, he wanders aimlessly first through the rougher parts of our nation’s capital, and then finally through the capital buildings. Every moment he comes across a television, he stops to watch until something else distracts his attention. This occurs in a painful way when he is accidentally struck by the limousine occupied by Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine). Though not seriously hurt, Eve nonetheless insists that Chance be taken back to her home where her aging husband’s doctors can examine him. Her husband is the influential and ultra-rich Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas). It is at this point that several acts of mistaken identity happen. For starters, Eve misunderstands Chance’s giving of his name as Chauncey Gardiner, the last name being the result of Chance’s stated profession and that being connected to an august family she knows. His well-tailored suits, which were given him by the old man, give him the air of somebody of means despite him stating that he had nobody. Finally, his fixation on the television in the car gave him the appearance of intensity, when really he is just zoning out. Not long after they arrive at the Rand’s palatial estate (it is filmed at the famous Biltmore mansion in North Carolina), Chance is examined by Dr. Robert Allenby (Richard Dysart) and ushered in to see Benjamin. Chance, somehow, casts the same spell on Benjamin. Through yet another series of miscommunications, Chance believes he is being hired to look after the gardens on the grounds, while Eve and Rand think he is making erudite metaphors regarding economics through Chance’s talk of managing plants. As such, when the president of the United States (Jack Warden), visits Benjamin seeking advice for national economic policies, Benjamin insists on Chance being “there.” When the president turns to Chance, he once again reverts to spouting what he does not realized are non-sequiturs about gardening that the president takes for meaningful positions on policy. Before the day is out, Chance is being researched by major newspapers, asked to go on nationally syndicated television talk shows, and Eve is falling in love with him. This last part comes with Benjamin’s tacit approval because, since he is dying and she is much younger, he wants somebody to take care of her. Because Benjamin inexplicably trusts Chance (remember, they had only just met), and with Eve’s evident feelings, he gives her his consent. Yet, despite her literally throwing herself at Chance, all he wants to do is watch television. This leads to one of the most awkward “sex scenes” this Catholic has ever had the misfortune to view, though the one saving grace is that there is no nudity. Anyway, everyone seems to be fawning over Chance, except for Dr. Allenby, who is just about the only one he sees the dolt for who he is. Not that he tells anyone. Instead, as the movie closes with Benjamin’s funeral, with Eve firmly wrapped around his finger, and the pallbearers speculating that Chance should run for president. He then walks off towards his new home, blissfully unaware of any problems.
By the way, the last scene in Being There with Chance strolling towards the Rand mansion has him walking on water. If you are a non-Christian reading this, or are somehow unfamiliar with one of Jesus’ most famous miracles, it is a rather frustrating parody of this Biblical miracle. Jesus did not step upon the Sea of Galilee like it was dry ground simply because, as God, he could do it. He did it because the Apostles were being tossed about in a storm and scared out of their wits. Jesus had been praying on a mountainside near the body of water, telling a collection of His associates that he would meet them on the other side. When they were in danger, Jesus, of course, knew of their fear and went to calm them. At first, they mistook the Messiah for a ghost. Sensing their troubled minds, He tells them who He is and to have no fear. Not yet convinced, Peter speaks up and says that if it really is Jesus, to command him to walk out on the water. Jesus wills it, and Peter makes his way. It is only when he stops focusing on Jesus and instead becomes aware once more of the tempest does Peter begin to sink. Now, if that does not speak to the seriousness of walking on water, I do not know what will. When Chance does it, he has a moment when he looks about in confusion, dipping his umbrella in the water to verify the fact that it is deep, and then nonchalantly continues his stroll. It is almost as if he has accepted that this is just how life is for him now. The movie is suggesting that anyone as unbelievably lucky as Chance should probably be able to do anything, even the miraculous. Faith, though, is not a matter of Chance.
Being There is played as a comedy. There is only one part at which I laughed. When the old man’s former maid, Louise (Ruth Attaway), sees Chance on television acting like a fool and being praised for it, she makes the only reasonable statement of the film. After the old man died, as an African American woman, she apparently got nothing. When she parted from Chance, she figured that, without a working brain cell in his head, that he was in for trouble. Nonetheless, being a well-dressed white person has taken him to the upper echelons of society. While he is in a posh studio, she sits in a rundown boarding house, proving to her that it truly is a white man’s world. Dark humor there, and about the only joke that does not reference Chance’s lack of intelligence. This is a huge yawn for me, particularly as there is zero character development. Pass.