“Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.” –Elwood P. Dowd
The central problem of Harvey is not that the other characters are unable to see the pooka, but that they are unable to see Elwood or themselves. Vita, Myrtle Mae, Dr. Lyman, Nurse Kelly, Dr. Chumley, Marvin, and Judge Omar–all the people who are trying to cure Elwood–are far from content. While Vita and Myrtle Mae struggle to find Myrtle a husband, while Nurse Kelly struggles to break through the emotional barriers erected by Dr. Lyman, and while they all struggle to do what is “best” for Elwood, Elwood simply is. Never mind Star Wars, the best depiction of Zen Buddhism in popular film is Harvey. “I always have a wonderful time,” Elwood says to Dr. Chumley, “wherever I am, whomever I’m with.” If self-satisfaction, peace, and contentment are the measures used, then Elwood is the only one not in need of a cure.
The effect of Elwood’s philosophy extends beyond his own sense of well being, however. The other characters lack of contentment leads to agitation, and this agitation quickly spreads to those around them. Vita calls Judge Omar, and Omar barks out his orders to his underlings. Dr. Lyman calls for Nurse Kelly and within minutes she is either angry, on the verge of tears, or both. Elwood has the opposite effect, which can be seen most tellingly in the encounter with the cab driver. Having come to inquire of Vita and Judge Gaffney regarding his fare, the cab driver is quickly put off and soon demanding payment. Unable to find her wallet, Vita must go for Elwood, and Elwood’s effect is immediately calming. The situation de-escalates, and the cab driver is assuaged. Elwood accounts for this difference in his discussion with Dr. Chumley: “Years ago my mother used to say to me . . . ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”
Harvey may be the film’s namesake, but Elwood is its hero. He may drink a bit too much, and he may see things that others don’t, but he also demands nothing and proceeds without judgment. He extends a sincere greeting to everyone he meets. He listens to them, he helps them in subtle ways, and, above all, he simply acknowledges their worth. As Dr. Chumley discovers, Harvey is real. But it’s not Harvey the world need to be real; it’s Elwood.