Zelig (Orion Pictures, 1983)

Zelig is Woody Allen's fictional documentary about the life of Leonard Zelig (Allen), a man so starved for acceptance that he literally transforms himself into whoever he is around. He is a human chameleon. Oddity that he is, he of course becomes an instant celebrity. Popular songs are written about him ("You May Be Six People But I Love You," "Chameleon Days"), he inspires a "chameleon" dance craze, and a filmed dramatization of his life is released.

Under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow, in her second film with Allen), some progress appears to be made -- except that he occasionally turns into a psychiatrist when with her.

Zelig is a highly successful "documentary." It is shot in black and white by Gordon Willis (who was nominated for an Oscar), which not only suits the time period (Roaring '20s), but also allows Allen to use stock footage from the period. Allen blends this with his own footage -- often inserting himself into existing film (ten years before Forrest Gump). In addition, the terrific narration from Patrick Horgan, combined with interviews from people like Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow, provide a palpable realism. Allen presents us with nothing short of an astounding technical achievement as well as a funny film (when its not trying to be funny; it falters during Zelig's therapy sessions where Allen recycles old standup routines under hypnosis). "Brilliant" is not too high praise.

But underneath the comedy is the tragic, poignant story of a man who lacks his own unique personality. Allen also finds time to comment on the nature of celebrity and how it can ruin any chance at a peaceful existence (a topic he surely knows about).

At its core, it's a gag, yes, but a clever one. At 80 minutes, it's just barely too long. Luckily, the character outlasts the gimmick.

Allen is approaching his peak here, finally getting away from the pure zaniness of his earlier films and commingling his comedy with character-based drama. Zelig is easily one of his ten best films, coming at the head of a period which would bring -- consecutively -- Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Hannah and Her Sisters.

Zelig, in turn, becomes a marvelous portrait of two men -- Leonard Zelig and Woody Allen -- both in the process of finding their most unique selves.

[Craig Clarke]