(director/writer: Woody Allen; cinematographer: Gordan Willis; editor: Susan E. Morse; music: Dick Hyman; cast: Woody Allen (Leonard Zelig), Mia Farrow (Dr. Eudora Fletcher), Garrett Brown (Actor Zelig), Stephanie Farrow (Sister Meryl), John Buckwalter (Dr. Sindell), Mary Louise Wilson (Sister Ruth), Sol Lomita (Martin Geist), Ellen Garrison (The Elder Dr. Fletcher); Runtime: 84; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Robert Greenhut; Orion; 1983) 

“Mildly amusing one-joke movie.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Woody Allen directs, writes and stars in this black-and-white mildly amusing one-joke movie, whose premise is smarter than the film itself. It’s a fictional documentary, mockumentary, about the life of human chameleon Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen), a colorless man who becomes a celebrity in the 1920s due to his ability to disappear into another persona. He could change his physical appearance to be anything from black, Indian, Scottish, or Chinese. Zelig has the unique ability to materialize at important events and social festivities. Some of those places include: a garden party of novelist Scott Fitzgerald, at batting practice with Babe Ruth, in Chicago as a member of Capone’s mob and later as a black jazz musician, mingling with the guests at William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon bash, on the balcony of the Vatican during an address by Pope Pius, and standing conspicuously behind the orating Adolph Hitler at a Nazi rally.

Zelig pretends to be using vintage newsreel clips of the 1920s and 1930s, but they are really well-conceived re-enactments. The newsreels look real due to Allen using 1920s equipment to film. The technical accomplishments are solid, but the film never gets off the ground because it is so emotionally flat and overall remains too distant.

Zelig baffles medical experts at a Manhattan hospital by his ability to transform himself physically into another, but only Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) seems to want to cure her sick patient. Little is known about him, except that he was born to a Jewish immigrant family and that his father, Morris, was a Yiddish actor. The theory the experts come up with for his condition, is that his abilities in these matters evolved from a young age as the result of constantly trying to conform. But before this theory could be tested, the young Zelig is taken away by his half-sister Ruth (Mary Louise Wilson) and her impresario boyfriend Martin Geist (Sol Lomita).

Exhibited as a circus freak, Zelig is exploited and mentally tormented by his money hungry guardians. Zelig becomes ever more withdrawn and defensive. Fortunately, a cowardly matador comes along to free the long-suffering cipher. He immediately disappears into the flow of humanity within Europe. Dr. Fletcher, still hoping to cure him to gain recognition in her field, only sees Zelig in newsreels or at a distance from an odd event attended. Her heart flutters, as she falls in love with the distant Zelig. As an odd twist, to make it appear like an authentic documentary, the fictional Leonard Zelig is discoursed upon by such prominent real-life figures as Susan Sontag, Irving Howe, Saul Bellow and Dr. Bruno Bettenheim.