Being There

Peter Sellers plays Chance, a dim-witted, TV obsessed man who doesn’t read, yet somehow finds his way to the heart of American politics. But unlike Donald Trump he is also kind-hearted and honest. When his long-term employer dies, he’s forced to leave the house in which he’s spent his whole life and falls into the unlikely company of a dying billionaire.

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When Chance leaves the house he finds a world very different from the one he’s used to as he walks around some of DC’s more deprived areas, struggling with the busy world he finds, much like Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption, or the Brother from Another Planet.

This slow-burner is more interesting that it is entertaining. Chance has the subtlest but most authentic of arcs. He ends the film in much the same situation he begins it, but has learnt to respond in a noticeably more human way, without altering his overall character. Sellers gives a performance to rival Brent Spiner as a character who struggles to relate to those around him.

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It’s a film about detachment, as Chance is so engrossed in TV, unconsciously copying what he sees in real time, that he consistently fails to respond to real-world stimulus, presumably expecting the same level of response he receives from his television set. But this never seems to put off those around him who project onto him their own beliefs and desires, resulting in many bizarre moments including the oddest sex scene in movie history.

But where Chance is absorbed in TV, the characters around him fail to notice what’s in front of them: the man they’ve welcomed into their lives is a simple gardener with very little ability to interact with the world.

It’s unclear whether this is due to their own self-absorption, lack of observatory powers, or simply that his authenticity and honesty is so great that they can’t help but completely trust his motives, effectively becoming enchanted by him. It can also be interpreted as a satire of the vacuousness of political discourse and people’s propensity to read their own views into meaningless platitudes.

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It’s also  great example of that uniquely American tale of a nobody who becomes a somebody, such as Zelig or Forrest Gump, foreshadowing the reality TV phenomenon through which notoriety has become detached from excellence. The idea that anyone can play there part in history is an enticing one, but in Being There it’s done with a particular satirical edge, including a wryly observed racial element.

Through his superb performance Sellers sells the often absurd, occasionally farcical story, turning it into a careful character study. While there are certainly humorous moments, that’s far from the overriding emotion of the film. That is until its unexpected end-credits blooper real, which marks a tonal shift from the film’s iconic and poignant ending, perhaps signifying that it’s not intended to be taken too seriously after all.

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