Cinema: Gravity Defied

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BEING THERE Directed by Hal Ashby Screenplay by Jerzy Kosinski

Being There is a spectacular balancing act. For almost two hours, Writer Jerzy Kosinski, Director Hal Ashby and Star Peter Sellers keep a single, scorchingly witty joke floating miraculously through midair. Though the joke ultimately crashes to earth too early—about 15 minutes before the movie ends—the final letdown does not spoil what has gone before. Here is a comedy that valiantly defies both gravity and the latest Hollywood fashion. There isn't a single laugh in Being There that owes anything to Animal House.

The film is an adaptation of Kosinski's 1971 novel. Its hero is Chance, a gardener, an illiterate and a 30-year shut-in whose entire knowledge of life comes from watching television. What might happen, Kosinski wonders, if such a man were suddenly forced to leave home and become a citizen of the real world? The answer to that question is Being There's single joke: no sooner does Chance venture out than he is mistaken for a philosopher, a sex symbol and a potential presidential candidate. The secret of his success is TV. Having been nurtured by the medium, Chance has all the attributes of a perfect TV star; he is bland, nonthreatening and always cheery. It is Kosinski's conceit that even a simpleton, if telegenic, has what it takes to be king in the land of the tube.

This point is brought home in a series of scenes built around the timeless farcical device of mistaken identity. For the gag to work repeatedly, the audience must believe that Chance is so completely blank that he could indeed seem to be all things to all the people he meets. Peter Sellers' meticulously controlled performance brings off this seemingly impossible task; as he proved in Lolita, he is a master at adapting the surreal characters of modern fiction to the naturalistic demands of movies. His Chance is sexless, affectless and guileless to a fault. His face shows no emotion except the beatific, innocent smile of a moron. His verbal repertoire consists only of mild pleasantries, polite chuckles and vague homilies about gardening. Sellers' gestures are so specific and consistent that Chance never becomes clownish or arch. He is convincing enough to make the film's fantastic premise credible; yet he manages to get every laugh.

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