Yeah, this is a PG movie that definitely deserves to be PG-13. But Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom doesn't exist yet, so we have to take PG for what it is: not R. There's some language and Shirley MacLaine has a really awkward moment that is of sexual nature. I actually like the TV's rating for this movie: TV-14. I like that. That's exactly where I would put it too.
DIRECTOR: Hal Ashby
I swear I have a Christmas movie to review. Again, we're on the great quest to clear out the DVR. I also got a whole bunch of bummer Criterions for Christmas, so you'll notice a trend to my generally bleak December / January reviews. Stay tuned. I've always known this movie primarily through the poster. Like many movies I get really excited about, I knew very little about this movie going into it. I knew that Peter Sellers was in it, but that's even as far as I could go with that. I was actually pretty amazed to see that Shirley MacLaine was in this movie. My wife is weirded out about my obsession with Shirley MacLaine. I think it is my love of The Apartment that gets me all excited to see her in movies, so Lauren was giving me the side-eye the entire time. Regardless, this movie kind of proved to be a good time, but it also falls into a category of movie that I have to keep somewhat distanced from.
First and foremost, notice that Hal Ashby directed this. If you are wondering what the tone of this movie is, think Hal Ashby. I'm going to have to spell that out for a lot of my audience (This is the most snooty sentence I've written today). Hal Ashby directed Harold and Maude. If you haven't seen Harold and Maude, you should stop reading a review for Being There and watch Harold and Maude right now. I don't care that it is Christmas. Some things take priority. Harold and Maude is so quirky and twee and Being There has a slightly lesser twee element to it. In Harold and Maude, Ashby is making a movie for young hipsters before they were called hipsters. Ashby has the same sensibility with Being There, but his audience is slightly older for this one. The audience is definitely more mature, but the movie still contains a bit of disdain for the mass public. The paradox about the whole thing is that Being There definitely has a fun, public appeal to the whole thing. Sure, the whole movie is satire on politics, to a certain extent. But there isn't a really deep delve into to the world of the politician. This is more of a commentary about how people tend to follow politicians that make them feel good and sound good, rather than give them anything of substance. I suppose it has a bit more political depth than Forrest Gump, but the two movies really share the same heart. In fact, those two movies would make an amazing double feature, which would have the Being There fans up in arms that they are sharing a theater with Forrest Gump fans. Regardless, the motifs between the two of them would be unquestionable. The big takeaway is that the movies both involve people misconstruing a man of simple intelligence (is there a polite, PC way to say this?) for a genius. I mean, the formula works. I'm glad that there aren't a glut of these movies because I can see this formula definitely wearing thin. But I remember in the halcyon days of Forrest Gump that people were questioning if Forrest really was a genius. Yeah, that might be telling about the state of our society. Being There thrives on the notion that we, as a country, are more willing to believe that an absence of content actually means depth. (The reason why there is such a tonal shift from the beginning of this review to the end is that I've reviewed about eighty-some midterm essays and I'm really aware that people know how to make nothing try to sound like something. I'm also now three reviews behind and I have to pack up a house. Tell me to relax.)
I've never really been a Peter Sellers fan. I know that I should be. He's everything that I like about classic comedy. I really didn't like Casino Royale (not that one), which really stains my entire opinion about Sellers. The Pink Panther movies are fine, I guess, but I discovered them too late. My sense of humor definitely moved on from those movies. Then there is Dr. Strangelove. I have no excuse. As a film teacher, I'm almost committed to liking Dr. Strangelove. But I have no...love (?) for the movie, so I had to try to stay open to Being There. Peter Sellers is great in this movie. I always have to keep in mind that Being There is a classic movie for the most part. Knowing that the movie is great is an odd experience because Ashby requires his viewer to have a certain suspension of disbelief about Sellers's performance. Sellers does the best job he can with such a character. Sellers has to come across as both simple and wise simultaneously. The film hinges on the dramatic irony of us knowing that Chance is a simpleton (that's not the word I want, is it?) but the fact that he just sounds fancy is what keeps him afloat. But there are so many lines where I just wanted to scream, "How is no one picking up on that?" Sellers nails his delivery each time, but I don't think some of the lines necessarily work with the narrative. I think part of that comes with the reactions that some of the other cast members give Sellers. I'm thinking about the scenes with Jack Warden. I wonder if Warden had no idea what his reaction is supposed to be. His "President Bobby" character is meant to love Gardiner, but his reaction with Sellers on screen implies that he doesn't trust him and is put off by him. That has to be an overwhelming task as an actor. Warden's Bobby should be distrustful of this character based on the consistently cryptic interactions with Gardiner, but the script calls that he has a different response. This is where the suspension of disbelief comes in and I guess that's okay. It's really only Shirley MacLaine that delivers on the believability of the whole thing. This is where my analysis goes to pot because my theory is that MacLaine just doubles down on an improbable situation. She falls in love with Chance. There's no reason for it. There's nothing that Chance does that is remotely seductive. On top of that, there doesn't seem to be much conflict between her aged husband and herself. Yeah, there's an age gap, but that age gap also exists with Sellers. On top of that, her character doesn't seem like she's in it for the money or the power, so that relationship doesn't make a lick of sense unless she is attracted to cryptic wisdom. But the scenes work because I don't think that MacLaine puts too much thought into these moments. I think Jack Warden is really thinking of the perfect reaction. I get the vibe that MacLaine is just saying, "The script says I'm madly in love with him, so that's how I'm going to play it." Really, we're talking about Stanislavsky v. Meisner. I'm normally a Stanislavsky guy, but Meisner might work in an absurdist piece like this.
Like Harold and Maude, the story plays up on how far the movie can take the premise. The movie goes to such lengths to push the envelope. I can't help but think that this is the comedic Ace in the Hole. With Ace in the Hole, the story gets bigger and bigger until it can't be contained anymore. The story really just keeps ballooning up, promising to pop. That's the odd thing about dramatic irony. It is supposed to be cathartic in the revelation of that secret being let out. Instead, the secret is only discovered by one person, who makes the choice to avoid telling others about his discovery. I think I like that B plot a lot better than the A plot. Everyone thinking that Chauncery Gardener is this great genius is funny, but utterly vapid to a certain degree. Rather, the quest for the doctor and his nerves to confront someone who might be in line for the presidency is far more interesting. I like how Ashby makes these moments muted. He doesn't vocalize his suspicions, but Ashby allows actor Richard Dysart to tell the story with his eyes. He is in constant suspicion and disappointment with the world around him and that's far more interesting to me. The confrontation towards the end is the smallest amount of catharsis and I really like that. There's never the big "breathe out", but rather, we just get the smallest sense of satisfaction that someone knows the truth. It's very odd and I'm sure that original drafts were tempted to play with the idea that someone knew that Chauncery Gardener was really just Chance the Gardener.
SPOILERS: We have to talk about the last shot: the walking on water. I Googled interpretations. I had to. I'm glad I did because I like the variety of answers. The first answer was that it was like Christ. Chance walking on water was me assuming that I was looking at a simple man when I was actually looking at a great man. While a cool idea, that ending didn't sit right with me. It was a kick in the pants, but it really didn't scan with the entire film for me. I had the insight for the beginning of the movie. Instead, I like Roger Ebert's interpretation of the end of the movie. There was a dock below the water and that it is a metaphor for the movie. People see what they want to see and justify their decisions because they don't have the whole picture. People wanted to see this great man, so they don't look at the possibility that he was just a simpleton the entire time. I really like that interpretation. There's also the ending that it is simply a really cool shot and it is hilarious to see this character believe that he can walk on water. Through Chance's belief that he could walk on water, he could actually do it. He believed that he was friends with all of these power folks, so he became a powerful person. People's belief in him is what actually drives the narrative forward. That's a pretty cool answer too. I like Ebert's interpretation the best, but all of these endings are awesome to me. Ebert's assumes a bit much, but it adds so much to the story as a whole.
I'm sorry that I fell so far behind on my reviews, but life just got in the way. I'll try to knock some out with whatever free time I have, but that's looking pretty thin for me. I really wanted to write my Scrooged review on Christmas Day, but sometimes I just have responsibilities. Regardless, Being There was an interesting watch and I like that this movie exists. I still think that Harold and Maude is Ashby's magnum opus, but this one has some meat on it as well.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.