It’s often surprising how good comedic actors can be, even in dramatic roles. Most people knew Robin Williams, but didn’t take him seriously as a dramatic actor until he won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting. A similar concept went through people’s minds about Adam Sandler, who up to then had been known as a mostly crass comedian, when he starred in P.T. Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. Peter Sellers, for instance, had been known for his spectacular comedic roles and improvisational skills, but as I’ve found, these can sometimes stem from a truly skilled acting talent, and Peter Sellers is nothing if not a truly skilled actor. This film, Being There, the last of Sellers’ films to be released while he was still alive, is a testament to that. Here, there is a whimsical sense of humor, but this largely is thanks to the script and the direction; Sellers is merely the catalyst for everything that occurs.
Sellers stars as Chance, a simple-minded gardener who works for a wealthy, elderly man. When I say Chance is simple-minded, I mean exactly that; he seems to be on the border of mentally deficient, and almost everything he knows about the outside world, how to act, and how to behave, is derived from all the television he watches. When his employer passes away, Chance is kicked out of his home and forced out into the world, which he has never been before. Thankfully, he is taken in by an ailing businessman, Ben Rand, and his wife Eve, who (and remember, this is the movies) confuse Chance’s simplistic manner and style of speech as wise and sageful advice about the economy and human relations. From there, his star continues to climb inexorably until he becomes a confidant of the President himself. Hal Ashby, the director, has a very careful line to thread with a film like this, but he threads it beautifully. Much, if not most of this, is thanks to the utterly solid central performance by Sellers. His is a minimalist performance for the ages, and it couldn’t be more flawless. The other aspect, that goes hand in hand with Sellers’ performance, is the script, adapted from his own novella by Jerzy Kosinski; it never seems to take a step out of place, and though some of what happens may stretch the imagination a bit, it serves the story perfectly.
There’s an awful lot to like about Being There, and very very little to dislike about it. The Book cites this as the “swan song to Sellers’ career”, and I can think of no better epithet to describe it. It’s simple, and has a beautiful charm to it, all the way to the film’s admittedly ambiguous ending. This is a well done feel-good film, and there were even a few moments that I caught myself laughing to, which is a lot more than the so-called comedies of today’s age. There isn’t very much reason, besides Sellers’ excellent turn, to seek this one out, but if you do decide to, there’s very little reason you won’t enjoy the experience.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10