Picks and Pans Review: Zelig

updated 08/08/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/08/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Fast, funny, high-spirited and strikingly original, this is, if such a creature exists, a perfect film. Written and directed by Woody Allen, it succeeds, as the best works of art do, on many levels. The basic story is in the form of a documentary about a 1920s misfit, Leonard Zelig, whose desperation to be like everyone else is so overwhelming he develops the ability to emulate whomever he is with: When he's with someone fat, he becomes fat; when he's with a trumpet player, he becomes a trumpet player. The KKK, intones narrator Patrick Horgan, considers him "a triple threat, because he's a Jew who can turn into a Negro or an Indian." Zelig, played by Allen, becomes a national figure and is nicknamed the Human Chameleon; a dance is named after him ("make a face just like a lizard/ feel that beat down in your gizzard"). He becomes a human exhibit; only his faithful psychiatrist, Mia Farrow, really cares about him. The documentary style is beautifully mimicked—Monty Python never did it better. And the "old" black-and-white footage of Zelig, interspersed with real vintage film of such figures as Hitler and William Randolph Hearst, seems amazingly realistic. Allen and Farrow are marvelous: As '20s characters in '20s newsreels, they subtly achieve major triumphs of acting. Even the extras seem to have exactly the right wide-eyed, nervous, uncomfortable look of people in the real newsreel footage of the era. Such living figures as author Saul Bellow and psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim appear as themselves, commenting on Zelig as if he were a real person, sending Warren Beatty's pretentiousness in Reds up to the stratosphere. This alone makes for a comedy film of genius proportion. (Director of photography Gordon Willis, production designer Mel Bourne and editor Susan Morse, all longtime Allen colleagues, clearly had something to do with this success, too.) But there is much more. Allen is obviously making statements about conformity, celebrity, artistic responsibility; many of the comments seem directed at himself and his own work, which lately has been vacillating between the obvious comedy that made him a success—which his fans seem to want—and the more serious but usually less entertaining impulses behind Interiors and Stardust Memories. Whatever interpretation one prefers, you can't ask for much more from a movie than that it give you a lot to laugh about while it's unreeling, and a lot to think about afterward. (PG)

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