Before there was Forrest Gump shaking hands with John F. Kennedy there was Leonard Zelig interrupting a speech by Adolf Hitler. This 1983 faux-documentary from Woody Allen tells the tale of a strange little man who wanted so badly to fit in that he was able to change like a chameleon to blend in with his surroundings, whether that meant being a musician in a black band, a psychiatrist in a mental institution, or a member of the Nazi party. Mia Farrow co-stars as Dr. Eudora Fletcher, who not only treats Zelig with her radical psychiatric theories but eventually falls in love with the lovable loser, saving him from those who want to put him on display so people can watch Leonard turn Chinese, French or obese.
Cinematographer Gordon Willis deserves a lot of the credit for "Zelig," creatively aging his film to blend with the archive footage that has Leonard rubbing elbows with Fanny Brice, Charles Chaplin and Rudolf Hess. This "documentary" includes "contemporary" interviews with Dr. Fletcher (Ellen Garrison) and other figures in the life and times of Zelig as well as comments from critics such as Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow ("He touched people in a way that they perhaps did not want to be touched..."). I also must commend the unique narrative style provided by Patrick Horgan, who delivers the sly narration with the driest sense of humor ever recorded.
My favorite section of this film is when Zelig becomes the national craze of the moment, to be celebrated and exploited by dolls, games and puzzles, songs like "Leonard the Lizard," and even a Hollywood movie. "Zelig" is a much more subtle documentary parody than either "Take the Money and Run" or "Spinal Tap." Truth, fiction and absurdity are blended seamlessly in this film, which is that most rare creature, a "charming" Woody Allen movie that is a much more enjoyable experience than reading "Moby Dick."