Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 10, 2009)
For his penultimate film role, we find Peter Sellers in 1979’s Being There. Here the chameleon-like actor plays Chance, a man who has lived his whole life in the same Washington DC home. Cognitively and emotionally limited, he experiences life via TV and knows nothing else of the outside world.
A major change occurs when Chance’s guardian dies. This leaves him homeless, and he wanders the streets of DC. As this occurs, he gets injured in a minor traffic accident when the car owned by wealthy Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine) hits him. She takes him home to care for his leg, though she mishears his name as “Chauncey Gardiner”.
While he stays at the Rand residency, Chance gets to know his benefactor and her powerful but sickly businessman husband Ben (Melvyn Douglas). He says little more than phrases he absorbed from TV, but those with whom he connects tend to interpret these as homespun wisdom. In an odd twist, Chance becomes an influential figure in business and politics, and his encounters lead him all the way to the president (Jack Warden).
Many have compared Being There to Forrest Gump, and those two do offer an awful lot of similarities. However, I kept thinking that There reminded me more of Big. I certainly see the ways in which There and Gump mirror each other, but something about it gave off that Big vibe in a big way.
In contrast with both Big and Gump, however, There tends to really understate its content. Don’t take that as a swipe at the others, especially not Big, which I think is a marvelous film. However, There provides a considerably less sentimental affair. It features little score and doesn’t attempt to manipulate our feelings as it goes. It presents its material in a rather matter of fact way that gives it a good spin.
That also allows the movie to cross genre boundaries. It spans drama and comedy in a variety of ways, but director Hal Ashby depicts events in a low-key manner that doesn’t push the viewer one way or another. I like that side of things, as it means the film avoids one-dimensional traps.
In terms of lead characters, Being There and Gump have the most in common, as both feature generally emotionless dullards. That’s one area in which Big clearly has the edge, as Tom Hanks took on the most challenging role there. He was a man who had to play a boy in a man’s body, whereas his Gump and Sellers’ Chance are simply unintelligent men.
Sellers earned a lot of praise for his performance, and I think he does just fine in the part. However, I don’t believe Chance is a terribly demanding role. Sellers essentially needed to find one note and play it for the whole movie. The character doesn’t grow in any notable way, and he’s not required to display much range. I can’t fault Sellers for that, of course, since he simply played the part as meant to be.
Being There doesn’t seem like the sort of movie to bowl over a viewer. It’s so relentlessly low-key that it threatens to make no impact, but it tends to stick with the audience. It features understated and interesting social commentary.