(director: Hal Ashby; screenwriters: Robert C. Jones/Jerzy Kosinski/based on his novel; cinematographer: Caleb Deschanel; editor: Don Zimmerman; music: John Mandel; cast: Peter Sellers (Chance the Gardener), Shirley MacLaine (Eve Rand), Melvyn Douglas (Benjamin Rand), Jack Warden (President Bobby), Richard A. Dysart (Dr. Robert Allenby), Ruth Attaway (Louise), Richard Basehart (Vladimir Skrapinov), Dave Clennon (Thomas Franklin), Fran Brill (Sally Hayes), Denise DuBarry (Johanna Franklin); Runtime: 130; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Andrew Braunsberg; Warner Home Video; 1979)

Peter Sellers gives a stellar performance.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Hal Ashby (“Harold and Maude”/”Coming Home”/”The Last Detail”)directs this provocative black comedy based on the 1971 novel bythe Polish born Jerzy Kosinski.When accused by another Polish writer of plagiarism, Kosinski took his life.

Peter Sellers gives a stellar performance as the illiterate gardener, child-like innocent Chance, who led an isolated and sheltered life from childhood on living in a tiny room in a Washington, DC, townhouse. The story begins when Chance must move because the elderly townhouse owner dies. The simple-minded amiable asexual Chance worked as a gardener for the townhouse and never left it, spending his time watching TV. For some reason the mysterious businessman owner never mentions Chance in his will. Forced to leave by a law firm handling the deceased’s estate, Chance is hit in the leg by a limo chauffeur while stepping off the curb and ends up staying as the guest of the limo owner in the mansion of a dying elderly industrialist tycoon, Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas), where he’s treated by the wealthy man’s live-in physician (Richard A. Dysart). The financial whiz takes a liking to the natural speaking Chance, now mistakenly called Chauncey Gardner, and the power-broker to politicians introduces him to the President (Jack Warden) and encourages him to get it on with his sex-starved beautiful younger wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine). Soon the gardener becomes an economic adviser to the President, as his innocent references from television and his garden are taken as metaphors for fixing the economy and is misunderstood by everyone as having deep meanings. Chance becomes a hot celebrity when he appears on a Johnny Carson-like night talk show to discuss his optimistic economic views, and becomes a name whispered by insiders as worth knowing after the mystery man attends a dinner honoring the Russian ambassador (Richard Basehart).

The slight parable goes on for too long, which results in the comic routine becoming less believable and more strained. The cracks about Americans being brain-dead about politics, being culturally deprived and being influenced by vacuous TV shows, makes it a cynical film that goes about as far it can go in its satire before it begins to lose its fascination the more Chance is taken seriously and even absurdly considered to be a candidate for president.

The film leaves us with the subtle message that “life is a state of mind.” The viewer is left to decode this message to mean something like our reality is the one we translate from our subjective preconceptions. This theme is carried out through the running gag that Chance is a blank who reacts to everything with a child-like innocence and thereby others fill in the blanks at what he says with their own reality and thereby identify with him as being like them.

Being There (1979)