My good old dad told me that this was one of his favorite comedies of all time. Seeing as this aforementioned dad introduced me to Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, George Carlin, et al comedy greats, I had no choice but to move Being There way up on my queue and see what all the fuss was about. It did not disappoint.
It’s amazing to watch a comedy that was made just over 30 years ago and to notice the almost stark differences between it and, say, The Hangover or Wedding Crashers. Comedies now are in your face, loud, fast-paced, and packed with antics and shenanigans and wall-to-wall one-liners. It’s almost like sensory overload. And we’re all totally used to it now. But Being There is a lesson in subtle comedy, and Peter Sellers is basically the tenured professor. As Chauncey Gardner, or rather Chance the gardner, he is a simple, understated, very literal man who, by virtue of 100% coincidence, gets thrust into situations that are way beyond his scope of comprehension. The result is a joyous, hilarious, quiet cinematic journey, and it’s totally worth watching.
Here’s a little more detail: Chauncey is, as I said, a simple man. He’s lived his whole life inside one house as a television aficionado and a gardener for a rich guy. When that guy dies, the house is shut down, so Chauncey’s thrown out. He happens to get hit by the car of a wealthy man and his wife, played by Shirley MacLaine, and they offer to nurse him back to health. His kind, empty demeanor and plain statements about nature are misinterpreted as sage advice about the state of the United States economy and, as luck would have it, the wealthy dude is an advisor to the President. Chauncey’s generic musings on “seasons” and “growth” become nationally broadcast soundbites, MacLaine’s character falls in love with him even though he’s probably never even touched a woman, and the wealthy guy basically entrusts Chauncey with his estate, his wife, and his legacy. That may seem like the whole story, but it’s really not. To watch this movie is to see Peter Sellers’ true mastery in front of the camera. He doesn’t move much or even say much, but the subtlety in his performance is mesmerizing. He exercises what I imagine was a significant amount of restraint in playing Chauncey, and his facial expressions (or lack thereof) are hysterical.
I read that Sellers (a.k.a. Inspector Clouseau) was pissed that the final credits for Being There were played over outtakes from the film, and I can sort of see why. He claimed that it took the viewer out of Chauncey’s ideal, limited little world, and it totally does. It’s great, of course, to see Sellers break a bunch of times (Who doesn’t love bloopers?) but the important thing to take away from this film is Chauncey’s view of the world. We should all be so lucky to see things so literally sometimes.