I can easily imagine watching Being There and chuckling heartily the whole way through. But that would probably take an even drier sense of humor than mine (which I’ve been told is pretty dry).
Peter Sellers plays it incredibly straight as Chance, a cipher of a gardener who has led a quiet, sequestered life for decades in his employer’s mansion. When the old man dies, Chance is unwittingly thrust into the real world, with only what he’s learned from television to guide him. Chance speaks softly and takes everything literally, which the people he meets mistake for folksy wisdom. This includes the business titan (Melvyn Douglas) whose wife (Shirley MacLaine) takes Chance home after her driver hits him. The scene of the two men sharing cigars after dinner is a good example of the film’s low-key, slow-burn humor: as Douglas puffs away, Sellers unsuccessfully fusses with the cigar cutter, finally tries to light up, fails, and then matter-of-factly sticks the thing in his mouth anyway.
Sellers is funny in every moment; you just have to watch very closely. MacLaine goes bigger, especially during the scene where she tries to get Chance to seduce her—and instead just does it herself when he can’t be bothered to look away from the TV. MacLaine’s smile alone is a breath of fresh air amidst all the stuffy comedy; she’s working on the level of The Apartment and Some Came Running here.
As Chance’s fortunes rise—including a fortuitous meeting with the president of the United States (Jack Warden)—Being There opens up to become a commentary on politics, celebrity, television, and race (considering the way he’s always given the benefit of the doubt, Chance nicely functions as a stand-in for white privilege). As such, you can see the movie’s influence on everything from Forrest Gump to Idiocracy to Elf, all comedies with oblivious, world-changing simpletons at their center.
Chance is a far more enigmatic figure, which keeps him somewhat at a distance. He serves as a Rorschach test for everyone he meets—they imagine him to be whatever they need—and as such never really develops his own personality (his obsession with television is his defining characteristic). Being There—which was adapted by Jerzy Kosinski from his own novel and directed by Harold and Maude’s Hal Ashby—doubles down on this quality with its enigmatic ending. It’s provocative, allowing for a lot of speculation, but also makes Chance seem even farther away.