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4.0 out of 5 stars Allen's Inventive Yarn, 13 Feb. 2012
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This review is from: Zelig [DVD] (DVD)
Woody Allen's 1983 film Zelig is a clever and beautifully constructed 'documentary' on fictional character, 'chameleon man' Leonard Zelig (played by Allen), and shot in black and white by regular Allen cinematographer Gordon Willis. In Zelig, Allen (and his technicians) skilfully intercut images of the fictional Zelig, with famous international stars from sport, literature and politics. Zelig is first mysteriously spotted in a baseball game, as he waits surreptitiously to come into bat behind Babe Ruth. The discovery of this 'mystery man' leads to Zelig being pursued by the authorities, who next locate him in the local Chinese community, where he has miraculously morphed in appearance to closely resemble a Chinaman - he is thereafter dubbed 'chameleon man'.

Allen has constructed the film in true documentary style (reminiscent of the earlier Take The Money And Run) with flashback footage of Zelig associating with high-profile public figures, being interspersed with current day interviews with close associates, family and friends (including real-life figures photographer Susan Sontag, author Saul Bellow and social commentator Irving Howe). Eminent doctor, Endora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) becomes fascinated with Zelig and undertakes a series of medical tests on him in an attempt to uncover the cause of his condition. She concludes that Zelig's metamorphic tendency is actually a 'cry for help' - he is seeking acceptance by society.

In Zelig, therefore, Allen is dealing principally with questions about identity and, in the character Zelig, has taken social conformity to its ultimate extreme, by adopting the same physical identity as one's surroundings. This is almost certainly Allen satirising the pressure he himself was repeatedly put under to 'conform' in his filmmaking, and to continue to make only genuine comedies. Also, as Zelig's notoriety grows, Allen once again satirises society's treatment of celebrity (as he had done previously - and more scathingly - in the earlier Stardust Memories), poking fun at the (tacky) commercial products launched on the back of Zelig's 'talent'. These include a dance - 'The Chameleon' - and various songs, such as 'You May Be Six People, But I Love You'.

Zelig contains a reasonable number of high quality Allen gags, but not as many, for example, as his other foray into the past, the marvellous nostalgia trip that is Radio Days which, for me, is a superior film. Indeed, midway through Zelig, I find that the 'one joke premise' underlying the film begins to wear slightly thin. It is not until the final 15 minutes, which contain the revelations of Zelig's past 'lives' and is followed by the marvellously funny sequence of him peeping out from behind Hitler(!) that lifts the film from three star to four star territory.

The other observation I had on the film were the (visual) echoes in parts (to me at least) of Citizen Kane. First, the documentary feel; second, the sequence in the film shot at William Randolph Hearst's Hearst Castle at San Simeon and, finally, the revelations from Zelig's past (a la Kane's affair with Susan Alexander). Perhaps it's only me.

In summary, not on a par with Allen's absolute best, but an inventive and funny film, nevertheless.
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