A lot changes in forty years when it comes to the world’s philosophical outlook. This film, recently marking its 40th anniversary, is ready for another viewing with this month’s Criterion release. It came out, however, in a very different era, one where film censorship was an issue that kept cropping up and there was a strict divide between East and West; a volatile era of changing values. The director, the legendary Hal Ashby, wasn’t restrained by taste concerns and produced numerous acclaimed classics throughout the ’70s that dealt with subjects ranging from unlikely intergenerational romance to the personal consequences of Vietnam. He pushed boundaries, was acclaimed for it, and managed with Being There to create something that’s the perfect end to a decade: a reflective piece, but bolder than a retrospective as it broadens to the weaknesses and primal needs of human behaviour. What makes it fascinating is that the approach taken leaves it looking like something quite special for its time, prescient today, and likely to affect audiences in the future.

It’s centered around the most unlikely of protagonists, a totally unintelligent, disconnected, and isolated gardener named Chance (Peter Sellers) who finds his horizons expanding — though his understanding of them remaining the same. He finds himself out of a job due to the death of his lifelong employer, however, but circumstances drop him into the world of a businessman, Ben (Melvyn Douglas), his wife, Eve (Shirley Maclaine), and connections that include the President himself. He remains utterly oblivious to the fortuitous nature of his circumstances, not only encountering the powerful but being regarded as serene in his taciturn nature and wise in his gardening comments that are taken for sage metaphors. The film, then, is essentially one joke of mutual misunderstanding, but pushed to its limits.

Sellers is exceptionally cast as Chance, managing to present him as someone who, despite his evident lack of presence, could feasibly be operating on a deeper level than everyone else. The performance has plenty of restraint, clearly evident in the protracted, taciturn usage of even the most simple words and phrases. His facial expressions are particularly interesting, however, delayed expressions always having an element of artifice and confusion that particularly compels you to follow and understand this person. The combination seems to show someone slow to grasp ideas, Sellers pitching neatly controlling his performance in the space between restraint and showiness, yet the lack of extremity makes it plausible people without an objective remove from this man might misread him. The whole, clever charade of the film would fall apart without Sellers’ comedic precision.

There is, naturally, plenty of humour to be drawn from such a sharply constructed central character and unlikely scenario. Some of the puns are wickedly brilliant in their simplicity but see, like any good jokes, expansion and reinterpretation as the film goes on thanks to an ever-changing series of unlikely events. The ability of the jokes to be tweaked and to continually amuse derives not just from great comic timing but the hilarious and surprising escalation of these events, silly wordplay sitting alongside the philosophical question of why people of increasingly great importance continue to misunderstand Chance’s intentions. The philosophy and humour are entwined with each other to create a film which is uniquely captivating.

What makes this interplay so effective is that, despite the absurd nature of the story, Chance is an unreal anomaly in a world that is mostly naturalistic. This isn’t the universe of The Jerk, having a foolish central character in a world of farce; that being an iconic comic tale but one essentially devoid of meaning. Here we see characters engaging with Chance in an earnest way, projecting onto him their hopes: Eve and her romantic desire, the President and enthusiasm for reductionist ideas, and the public who gleefully take great meaning from his simplistic, levelling metaphors. We’re being asked, by the specific tone in place, of how we’d respond to Chance and to consider what the characters’ reactions suggest about us. This is a story not content with being abstract or forgettable but in asking profound questions.

Earnestness and meaning make themselves most visible through the raw emotion that appears. It rounds out the story, yes, but to add in genuine pathos crucially reminds viewers that there’s meaning beyond the surface worth contemplating. Ben’s reflection on Chance’s role in helping him cope with death is heartwarming, not for their connection but because, in one fell swoop, this scene seems to get to the heart of the protagonist’s power; he’s a tabula rasa who, in his malleable nature, functions like religion — being the comfort that people need in whatever way they need. The extended joke is given a heart-wrenching reality by the humanity that exists beyond the apparent stupidity of the characters misunderstanding Chance, this affecting, left-field sympathy suggesting that the story mightn’t be superficial satire but something more akin to parable.

Perhaps what has allowed the film to continue to draw people in is the variety of ways in which the narrative can be interpreted. It seems unlikely that anyone would go away from the film without awareness that there is some sort of meaning threading through the comedy; the final scene makes explicit that there is more to Chance’s role in the film than purely generating comedy. However, it’s been seen as a critique of television and the removal of critical faculties it has brought, a religious parable, and might even be able to be seen as a prescient look at how easily fools can be put into positions of power. This means that most people will be able to engage in a way that personally connects them with it, broadly positioning it as an important watch.

All the ways that this can be perceived have a common underpinning, though, of delusion — the act of self-deception something that is utterly devoid of time and place. This delusion can be argued to come in many forms but, essentially, it’s rooted in the need to cope with the complex emotions of existence and to reduce them to something simpler, more primal, and whether the delusion is provided by religion or TV or celebrity is immaterial. For those considering the broader picture, delusion is presented to filter into life at all levels: romantic, social, political. To take the film from this perspective, as a piece pulling back the curtain to reveal the fundamental driving force of society as a whole, positions it as one of tremendous insight and rare importance.

There aren’t many comedies that manage to merge humour and philosophy so effectively, integrating style with themes so that it becomes — no matter how amusing — a film of purpose. There are some major mainstream comedies that attempt existential profundity, Click and The Invention of Lying being examples of such, but they are obsessed with their effects on the audience as indicated by the veering between moments of schmaltz and zany silliness. Being There has a more organic tone with less extremes, yet it stretches its joke to breaking point and presents an array of variations on its themes. It is a complex work, not didactic or emotionally straightforward but a work with a richness that elevates it above the genres of comedy and drama. The conventions of the genres that are borrowed serve to act as foundations for a work of art.

It’s a classic work, if underseen, and hopefully with the Criterion release its stature will only grow. It deserves to succeed as an intelligent film that asks significant questions, but one which does so in a way that avoids the deadening cynicism of so many films that profess to be philosophical; the playfulness here is entertaining and provides flexibility for a work that is exploration rather than diatribe. This might never have a place in mainstream culture if the last forty years are mirrored ahead, but it deserves to be championed and will rightly find dedicated supporters. Humour, heart, insight, and craftsmanship have created something that doesn’t compromise on fun or philosophical freedom, and such a complete approach means that the result will appeal for generations to come.

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