Ground Zero for the cult of Sellers, Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There (the last film of Hal Ashby’s 1970s run) is a mercilessly poker-faced examination—or, if you’d prefer, attack—on the uniquely judgmental and generous spirit of America that comes off today a tad like the genteel great uncle of Borat. The recent Sacha Baron Cohen film was characterized as a ferocious, abrasively direct movie that exposed America’s racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic legacy, but some saw the film’s undercurrent of tolerance even when most social graces would normally have long dried up.
Being There‘s central figure, Chance the gardener, is a functionally retarded space cadet who can barely differentiate between the real world and the world inside television screens. Thanks to the munificence (or indifference) of his recently deceased upper-middle-class D.C. employer, Chance has spent his entire life tending to a small backyard garden and, in his off hours, watching television. Fortuitously, he immediately stumbles into the home of a powerful businessman and political puppet master who takes an immediate liking to Chance’s seemingly understated intelligence. Inevitably, everyone holding any position of power comes to the realization that Chance could represent the future think-tank for the entire U.S. Government: his simple gardening aphorisms are taken as sweeping economic metaphors; his non sequiturs are repeated by the president himself; and he seems on the verge of being handpicked by the party powers-that-be as their best bet for the next presidential election. Meanwhile, he continues to obediently watch and do everything he sees on television.
While the content of Kozinski’s satire is almost bitterly incisive (no more so than when the only clear-eyed character in the film, the black housemaid, declares Chance’s ascendance into the national spotlight, despite having “rice butting between the ears,” as the ultimate proof that America is “a white man’s world”) and prescient (between Reagan and Dubya, every elected president arguably campaigned with their “approachable” anti-intellectualism as a character credit), Ashby’s bemused direction tempers every blunt edge. A hippie’s hippie at heart, Ashby doesn’t quite have it in him to survey the societal wreckage of the consumer-minded 1970s and come up with something as trenchant as George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Rumor has it the movie’s coda, in which Chance literally walks on water, was invented by Ashby on the spot, and it stands to reason: He and Sellers bend over backward to recast Kozinski’s walking monument to American vapidity as a neo-Holy Fool.