Being There (1979)

(On Cable TV, July 2017) One of my least favourite archetypes is the Holy Fool, the innocent that seems protected from reality by authorial fiat. So it is that Being There is built around the notion that we can project higher qualities onto people who don’t really have them. It does so by presenting a child-minded man who, for decades, has never had to face reality. Well dressed, mild-mannered and competent in gardening, he is thrown in the real world following the death of his benefactor, and manages, through a series of convenient misadventures and falsely profound gardening homilies, to become a respected pundit and political confidante, all the way to being considered as a presidential candidate. (Considering the ongoing fallout of the 2016 presidential election, this is far less funny than it must have been at the time.) Considering my distaste for that kind of story, the first act of Being There is actively irritating. Things do improve afterward, as we start seeing other people’s reaction to the protagonist—that’s when the real world comes back to the movie, and the real comedy begins. But there are limits to the material, especially when it’s a one-note premise stretched so thin over more than two hours. Begin There overstays its welcome as it keeps making the same points. Still, as much as I don’t particularly like the film, there is much to admire in Peter Seller’s performance as the oracular idiot: It takes a lot of skill to act simple-minded while maintaining a credible veneer of respectability, and Sellers is usually able to hit that particular target. (I’m not too fond of Shirley MacClaine’s seduction scene, but the seventies were a special time.) (I’m also not that fond of the ending outtake.) (Although that last shot is growing on me.) I shudder to think of what a modern version of the movie would look like, especially with someone like Will Ferrell in the lead. While there are a few things of interest in Being There, the overall effect is more tedious than satisfying—but then again, I didn’t expect to like the film anyway.

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