In one of his most finely tuned performances, Peter Sellers plays the pure-hearted Chance, a gardener forced out of moneyed seclusion and into the urban wilds of Washington, D.C., after the death of his employer. Shocked to discover that the real world doesn’t respond to the click of a remote, Chance stumbles haplessly into celebrity after being taken under the wing of a tycoon (Oscar winner Melvyn Douglas), who mistakes his new protégé’s mumbling about horticulture for sagacious pronouncements on life and politics, and whose wife targets Chance as the object of her desire. Adapted from a novel by Jerzy Kosinski, this hilarious, deeply melancholy satire marks the culmination a remarkable string of films by Hal Ashby in the 1970s, and serves as a carefully modulated examination of the ideals, anxieties, and media-fueled delusions that shaped American culture during that decade.
I love the mission of The Criterion Collection – not only because they restore notable films with heightened video and audio qualities, but because they often bring films to my attention that I've not previously seen, let alone heard of. I can pick up any random Criterion Blu-ray and watch it with the reassurance that it's of great merit; however, for the first time, I feel like they let me down. Being There may feature the expected great video and audio qualities for which Criterion is known, but the satirical subject matter becomes beyond offensive the moment you put the slightest analysis into what it's preaching and what it stands for.
Peter Sellers leads the film as Chance, a middle-aged man with mental and social deficiencies. At a very young age, farther back than any of his memories serve, he was brought in by a wealthy old man who had Chance trained to serve in his large estate as the gardener. For 50+ years, this has been Chance's life. He's never stepped foot outside the enclosed estate. With absolutely everything taken care of for him, he leads a sheltered and naïve life. Aside from a friendly maid who cooks his meals and cleans his clothes for him, he has no one. The television is his best friend. As such, his perception of the real world is tainted by unrealistic expectations created by mainstream broadcast programming.
Just a few minutes into Being There, we learn that Chance's tycoon guardian has passed away and the house is seized by a law firm. Without a last name, social security card or identity, Chance finds himself on the street. Not a dollar to his name, he aimlessly wanders around the streets of Washington, D.C. Hungry and cold, his misfortune miraculously turns around when a hired driver accidentally (and gently) pins Chance's leg between two bumpers. Feeling awful for the incident, the hired driver's employer in the back seat, Eve (Shirley MacLaine), offers to take Chance to her ritzy home where her private doctor can assess his mild injury.
When Chance arrives in Eve's luxurious upscale high-rise home, he meets her husband, Ben (Melvyn Douglas). Like Chance's late caretaker, Ben is very old and knows that he's on his last leg. When asked about his life and job, Chance speaks of gardening, all of which is taken as an allegory by the "high-minded," wealthy intellectuals around him. His simple-mindedness is mistaken for quiet dignity and brilliance. With Ben having strong political power, he immediately takes Chance in and demands Chance assist in his political affairs, making Chance a none-the-wiser advisor to a powerful man. The remainder of the film is entirely dedicated to showing how an unintelligent man can be heralded as one of the most brilliant men in Washington.
With a 130-minute runtime, Being There is the longest single-punchline political joke ever written. We get it - sometimes, not-so-smart people somehow make it into powerful high-impact positions. This joke is told incessantly these days. And while many of the contemporary versions are hilarious, none of them take 130 minutes to tell.
What makes this joke offensive is how Being There uses Chance to tell it. The term "simple-minded" is often used to describe him; however, that's just a nice way of putting it. He has genuine and obvious mental disabilities, which makes it feel like the film is exploiting real-life challenges that many people face. For me, it's not worth it just to get to a punchline that seemingly conveys the message: politicians, even a mentally-challenged person can be one.
In terms of politics, I'm fairly neutral. I have my opinions, but I typically keep them to myself. I laugh at jokes cracked on all sides; however, this one simply isn't funny. In addition, the bloated film that tells it isn't even particularly well made. The humor is so dry that's often not funny at all. Sellers is praised for his performance, but I'm certain that most actors could have played this flat character as well as he did. And a little editing goes a long way.
For the first time, I disagree with Criterion's decision to add Being There to their collection.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection has placed Being There in one of their classic clear keepcases with #864 on the spine. The film is housed on a Region A BD-50 disc. A booklet with transfer notes, credits and an essay from Mark Harris is included within. The coversheet also has inner artwork that's visible from the inside of the clear case. Nothing but a Criterion logo reel plays before the main menu.
With a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer of a new 4K restoration that was overseen by the film's cinematographer, the new Criterion edition of Being There looks great. I wasn't around when it hit theaters in 1979, but I'm certain that this is the best it has looked since then, and it's likely that it won't get any better.
A nice little dusting of 35mm celluloid grain peppers the screen for the majority of the film. For film purists, it's a warmly welcomed nice touch. Aside from very few select scenes, there's a strong sharpness to the film. Skin and fabric textures are strong and highly visible. In fact, you'll be able to visually distinguish the difference in fabric types between Chance's multiple suits.
The color palette is pretty mild and not at all flashy. It features muted versions of standard '70s colors. Contrast is consistent. Black levels can be a little heavy, but aren't distracting or bad. The only real flaw that I noticed came in a few scenes with unmistakable digital noise. Artifacts, aliasing, and bands are absent.
According to the transfer notes, the mono track of Being There was remastered from a 35 mm original magnetic track and digital tools were used to remove flaws that resulted from age and damage. They weren't kidding about the latter. I didn't notice a single instance of hissing, clicks or thumps. The only flaw that I did notice came from blown-out and distorted dialog yelled by a TV producer in a hallway.
Aside from it's one flaw, the monoaural audio is fantastic. There's a lot going on in this complex track, yet it's never hindered or congested by its one-channel limitation. The effects are layered well, bringing environments to life. The score – which playfully adapts well-known pieces of score and orchestration into '70s themed renditions – sounds great beneath the dialog and effects.
You can't expect much more from an old mono track than what you get here.
The Making of Being There (HD, 47:39) – This new feature contains interviews from the producers, screenwriter, cinematographer and editor of the film. They discuss how it came to be, including how Hal Ashby and Peter Sellers became attached. It covers all aspects of the film's production.
Hal Ashby at the AFI (HD, 32:54) – In January, 1980, Ashby gave a seminar at the American Film Institute. This feature contains a mono Dolby Digital audio recording of that event. The audio is muffled and sounds as if it was recorded a great distance away from the source. The result is a mumbly presentation that will force you to listen closely.
Jerzy Kosinski and Dick Cavett (HD, 19:32) – This HD presentation of SD video shows an episode of Cavett's show in which the Being There author appeared to discuss the film. The episode aired on 2/2/79 and reminds me of how good talk shows used to be before they turned into "Stupid Human Tricks: Celebrity Edition."
Peter Sellers on Today (HD, 10:31) – Also an HD presentation of SD video, this segment from a March, 1980 The Today Show segment features the great actor with Gene Shalit. Unlike the previous feature, this one does turn into "Stupid Human Tricks" when Shalit repeatedly asks the actor to do multiple voices. Sellers declines at first, but ultimately succumbs to Shalit's fanboy requests. It's awkward.
Peter Sellers on The Don Lane Show (HD, 11:55) – Yet another HD presentation of SD video, this one features Sellers on an Australian talk show in April 1980. Despite being conducted via satellite (remember when that was a thing?), it's quite a good interview.
Deleted Scenes & Outtakes
Deleted Scene 1: Kids Playing Basketball (HD, 2:00) – There's nothing to see here. Move along.
Bedroom (HD, 0:50) – Once again, move along.
Alternate Ending (HD, 2:04) – Get ready for a longer take of what's already in the film.
Outtakes (HD, 3:25) – If you've seen the film, then you've already seen this outtake. It plays beneath the closing credits, so now you can watch it without those pesky credits scrolling over it.
Promo Reel (HD, 2:51) – This improvised comic promotional piece features Sellers and Ashby attempting to be funny on-the-fly. If you enjoy ramblings from people who think they're funnier than they really are, give this one a shot.
Trailers & TV Spots
Trailers (HD, 2:50) – One trailer plays here.
TV (HD, 0:45) – One 15-second spot and one 30-second spot play back-to-back here.
It was bound to happen, but I didn't foresee it happening with Being There. For the first time, I found a Criterion movie that I absolutely didn't like. Peter Sellers and Hal Ashby's unfunny political comedy is a bloated, heartless mess. The moral of the simple plot-less story - which I find absolutely offensive - is that even a mentally challenged man can be mistakenly revered as one of the most brilliant political figures in Washington. (I don't find this message offensive in regards to what it says about politicians, rather how it uses a disabled character to crack the film's running solitary joke.) While the meanspirited message is ugly, the video and audio qualities are superb. They're much better than you'd expect from a nearly 40-year-old film. In addition, a good amount of solid special features are included. If only the film itself was as deserving of the great 4K Blu-ray remaster that it received.