Most movies don't benefit from an inability to make up their minds, but Being There glides on its own contradictions. Closing out a decade of great, too-often-overlooked work, Hal Ashby directed this 1979 feature with a straight face that could hide a wicked grin, a beatific glow, or both. It ends with what looks like a miracle, but Ashby's ability to make the peculiar story as moving as it is opaque is kind of miraculous in itself.
He had help, of course. In his next-to-last role, Peter Sellers plays Chance, a sheltered Washington D.C. gardener who's known only one home since childhood. But when his benefactor dies, he's forced to leave. What little he knows of the world comes from television, which he watches constantly with a fascination that never quite passes into understanding. Confronted by a gang on the streets of D.C., he points his ever-present remote control at his tormentors and waits for the channel to change. He's rescued from the streets after an accident involving Shirley MacLaine, wife of dying tycoon Melvyn Douglas. Whisked away to their sprawling estate, Sellers becomes an integral part of the household. He rarely speaks, and when he does, those around him read profound metaphors into his simple statements about gardening. In short order, he begins meeting with the president (a grumpy Jack Warden) and gets treated as a celebrated advisor on national affairs.
In bare description, it sounds like a simple satire, but it doesn't really play that way. Ashby doesn't shy away from satirical moments, but his direction gives Being There an autumnal feel, and the performances key into the melancholy tone. It's more touching than funny to see Douglas finally make a friend who's incapable of being intimidated by his wealth and power, and to watch Sellers become the object of MacLaine's pent-up desire, which he can't reciprocate. He can, however, respond sweetly and with as much warmth as his personality permits, while he looks for something else to watch.
Based on a novel by Polish-born writer Jerzy Kosinski—whose own life unraveled shortly after the film's release, under accusations that he'd climbed too high under false pretenses—Being There finds humor in the way Sellers becomes a blank screen on which people project their expectations. But it also finds value in his simplicity, which might seem like a lot of New Age hokum if not for Sellers' disarmingly quiet performance, and the way it bounces off a sea of disorienting TV soundbites that capture the already-media-saturated landscape of the late '70s. He fits right into that world, but when it counts, he floats above it.
Key features: Caleb Deschanel's wood-and-shadows photography looks especially stunning on the Blu-ray edition. The Blu-ray and DVD versions both include a pair of minor deleted scenes, fond reflections on the film by Melvyn Douglas' granddaughter Illeana Douglas, and a miracle-free alternate ending.