Old 01-26-2009, 07:15 PM
Hal Ashby's Being There

Being There (1979)

Peter Sellers was such a versatile actor. He was able to play an entire range of characters, sometimes within the same movie, the most famous of which is probably Kubrick's "Dr. Stranglove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." For an actor who is known for being incredibly eccentric on screen, what happens when he is asked to play a man with almost no personality? You get the character of Chance in Hal Ashby's "Being There."

This film tells the story of Chance (Peter Sellers). We are never told his real last name or much about his past. All we know is that he has worked as a gardener all of his life at a house in Washington D.C. When an old man dies in his house (possible employer or even father) he is evicted. Chance has never been outside and what he knows of the outside world comes from his numerous hours of watching television. When a car accidentally backs into his leg, the owner of the car, Eve (Shirley MacLaine), offers to take him to her house where her husband is currently being treated for an illness.

It just so happens that her husband is Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas), a top economic adviser to the President (Jack Warden). Chance quickly becomes close friends with Eve and Ben. The couple feels more at ease with him around as he gets to know them. Their relationship grows and leads to some very interesting experiences for Chance, including a meeting with the President of the United States.

Chance is a fascinating character to watch. He somehow gets by saying very little. When he does talk, he mostly parrots what he hears on TV or what other people have said to him. The immediate comparison that comes to mind is Forrest Gump, which wouldn't be made for another 15 years, but Chance is even more of a simpleton than Gump was. Gump was able to hold somewhat length conversations, sometimes composed mostly of just him talking.

Chance is a man of few words. Gardening is all he knows. So what happens when he is suddenly thrust in the spotlight on a popular TV talk show? He talks about what he knows. He had just given the President his opinion on the economy by comparing it to how a garden's roots will allow plants to grow and that we must appreciate the seasons of non-growth as well as the season of rejuvenation. People take this as great wisdom on his part, taking it as having a much deeper meaning than he is actually talking about. Does Chance really know what they're talking about? Probably not, but he does know about gardening. It is the one skill he has used throughout his life.

This is a man who has been so influenced by TV, that it basically becomes a game of "monkey see, monkey do." When there are aerobics on, he begins to do them. When he sees people kissing, he begins to kiss Eve, who just happens to be making advances at the same. Or take when Chance first steps outside the door of his former abode. He approaches a group of young men and asks them if they know where there is a garden he can tend to. They immediate think he was sent from somebody they know and threaten him with a knife. Chance, using his TV-infused brain, pulls out his weapon, the remote to his television. He attempts to change the channel, but this is reality, which he is being faced with for the first time.

The last scene has caused much debate among film-goers. Chance is walking next to a small lake when he suddenly walks straight out onto the water. Even he is a bit surprised when he sticks his umbrella down into the water, showing that he is indeed on top of it. How are we to take this image? The first thought that will cross most people's minds is Jesus. Is Chance's teachings meant to be seen as the teachings of Christ? Are fewer words better than more? Perhaps the life of a simple gardener has more meaning and value than the lives of the rich and famous. Jesus was a man of simple needs; some clothes, some food. All Chance has when he leaves on his journey are clothes and the TV remote, his food for thought, so to speak. Coincidence?

Director Hal Ashby's previous works includes his masterpiece "Harold and Maude." That film dealt with an obsession with death and a new found love of life. "Being There" works really well as a companion piece to that film in that it shows nothing but a profound respect for life while acknowledging death, but not letting it stop that love of all living things.

This experience will leave some people quite perplexed. What is the true purpose of Chance "being there"? His simple ways brought comfort to those who only knew him for a short time before feeling like he was family. He did all this by only saying a few words when prompted and with the utmost kindness and respect. Perhaps we all have something to learn from Chance. 3/4 stars.
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