Long before Tom Hanks sauntered through 'Forrest Gump' as a good-natured idiot manchild who inadvertently affects the course of world events, Peter Sellers did much the same in 'Being There'. Revisiting the 1979 film now reveals just how shamelessly 'Gump' lifted ideas and themes from it. The difference between them is that 'Being There' uses its premise as a satirical attack on the dangers of ignorance and complacency in modern society, while 'Gump' celebrates and even advocates the joys and social advantages of being a halfwit moron.
Chance the gardener (Sellers) has spent his entire life in The House, tending to the garden of The Old Man. He knows nothing else. He has no education of any kind, beyond the pabulum he watches on TV. He likes to watch TV. He wakes up with the television on, he eats, he watches TV, he gardens, he goes to bed. This is his life. When The Old Man passes away, Chance has no emotional reaction at all. He doesn't understand death any more than he understands life. He also doesn't understand why the nice lawyers are telling him that he must leave The House. He has never left The House. But they tell him he must go, and Chance does what he's told. Thus begins his first adventure into the real world, which he greets with as much indifference and lack of comprehension as anything else in his life.
Things might have gone quite badly at that point if not for a chance encounter (pun very much intended) with a wealthy woman whose driver accidentally backs into Chance's leg. Fearing a lawsuit, Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine) insists that he be taken to her mansion to see her private doctor. Mishearing his name, Eve introduces the newly-christened Chauncy Gardner to her husband Benjamin (Melvyn Douglas), a very powerful magnate of industry on his deathbed. Based on his wardrobe (borrowed from The Old Man's closet), both Eve and Ben take Chauncy to be of similar social standing to their own, and somehow miss the fact that he has the IQ of a first-grader. They find his calm, even tone and lack of sycophancy refreshing. They believe him to be a thoughtful man of few words, and mistake his simplistic prattle about plants and gardening to be profound metaphors for life, business, the economy, or anything else they choose to read into it. From the Rands, Chance is introduced to no less than the President of the United States (Jack Warden), who mentions his wisdom in a speech. That leads to a TV interview on a popular late night talk show ("I like TV"), and soon Mr. Chauncy Gardner is a national sensation – respected, admired, and desired.
As directed by Hal Ashby ('Harold and Maude', 'Shampoo'), 'Being There' is a satire of wealth and privilege, politics, religion, the media, and society's desperate need to find meaning in the mundane. Sellers underplays the role of Chance almost to the point of catatonia. The character is a blank slate. He is whatever people see him as, a point hammered home by both the title and the final, enigmatic image.
The film earned Sellers an Oscar nomination, and won a trophy for Melvyn Douglas (his second). It was a fairly big hit for the time and has gone on to be regarded as a classic. Personally, I was a bit put off by the tone. The movie is almost as cold and aloof as Chance himself. There's a point to it, but that's not my preference for comedy. I also found some of the satire too broad and the script too haphazardly plotted. It simply defies credibility that no one could recognize that this man, acting as he does, has the intellect of a child. Even if he likes the guy, under what circumstance would a powerful businessman like Rand invite a near-total stranger to sit in on his private meeting with the President? And would the Secret Service really allow it without a background check? Yes, you can make excuses to explain details like those away, but it's all just too convenient and heavy-handed.
As is the forced romance between Chance and Eve. The more emotionally distant he acts, the less able she is to notice that the guy isn't kissing her back. As much fun as Shirley MacLaine is in the movie (it's easy to forget that she used to be a pretty damn good actress), I think my life would be a better one if I'd never watched the scene of her masturbating. That's an image I really don't need in my head.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Being There' comes to Blu-ray from Warner Home Video. The disc has been authored with many of the studio's bad habits. For one, an annoying Blu-ray promo plays before the movie, as if someone already watching a Blu-ray needs to be told how great the Blu-ray format is.
Following that, the film starts automatically without going to a main menu. That wouldn't be a big problem, except that the disc defaults to lossy Dolby Digital audio. If you want the lossless Dolby TrueHD option, you have to open the pop-up menus while the movie plays. Because the disc isn't Java-enabled, the menus don't work when the movie is paused. Therefore, you must change the audio during the opening scene and then skip back to restart it over again when you're ready. What a pointless nuisance.
Although 'Being There' has nice photography by Caleb Deschanel, the Blu-ray's 1080p/VC-1 transfer is erratic at best. As per Warner's policy, the 1.85:1 theatrical framing has been opened up to fill a 16:9 screen (the difference isn't worth complaining about). Contrasts are a little flat and colors are usually drab, but overall the basic color transfer looks appropriate for a movie from the '70s. Flesh tones appear accurate, which is a big improvement over the pinkish faces on past video editions.
Unfortunately, in an attempt to hide film grain, the studio applied some aggressive Digital Noise Reduction. The problem is quite severe in some scenes, especially the opening. Film grain freezes in place while the action of the scene moves around it. Detail is mushy, and objects smear when in motion. That's just not a good way to start the movie. Luckily, not every scene is so bad. Most retain at least a fair amount of fine object detail, and some scenes actually look very nice. But the disc is frustratingly inconsistent.
The film's original monaural sound mix is presented in either standard Dolby Digital 1.0 or lossless Dolby TrueHD 2.0 mono. Even though the TrueHD track is technically encoded as 2.0, the mix is still mono. The movie was not remixed into stereo. As mentioned above, the disc defaults to the lossy track until manually changed. Lossless encoding doesn't really offer much of an improvement here. In either option, the soundtrack still sounds like what it is – a dated mono mix from the '70s.
By design, any scene featuring a TV usually has the TV volume overpowering the rest of the audio. In the opening sequence, a symphony plays on television, and it sounds incredibly harsh, shrill, and hissy. Admittedly, the intent was probably to replicate the sound of tinny TV speakers. The effect may be successful, but it's also unpleasant to listen to. The same problem also carries over to music cues not coming from a TV, such as the extended disco version of "Also Sprach Zarusthra" that plays during Chance's first walk through the city.
The majority of the soundtrack is dialogue. While clear and intelligible, fidelity is usually thin. This just isn't a movie you watch for the auditory experience.
The Blu-ray arrives simultaneously with a new Deluxe Edition DVD release, and shares that disc's bonus features. Unfortunately, that "Deluxe Edition" isn't very deluxe at all.
Really, that's all.
I had a really hard time picking a final rating for this review of 'Being There'. The movie is regarded as a classic and is beloved by many, but it's never done much for me. It's a film I can appreciate more than I can love. Not helping matters, the technical quality of the Blu-ray is mediocre at best, and the bonus features are also a wash. The disc is still worth a look, but I hesitate to recommend a purchase.