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ZELIG. Directed and written by Woody Allen; produced by Robert Greenhut for Orion/Warner. Starring Woody Allen and Mia Farrow. Rated PG.


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Amazing! Stupendous! Incredible! These are the kind of words used in the popular press of the 1920's to describe Leonard Zelig. And the same descriptions fit Woody Allen's new movie, which recounts the adventures of the unlikely hero.

Zelig is the most original comedy I have ever seen.

Zelig's (Allen) story is told as a TV documentary. And the spoof is so complete and so accurate, that no one who sees it will be able to watch the real thing again without giggling.

Allen has managed to integrate his recognizable face smoothly into a number of old still photographs and newsreels. In addition, the scenes shot for this movie are "aged" perfectly. There is hardly a seam between the real and the fabrication.

Some of Zelig's jokes and sight gags would only be mildly amusing done straight. But they are hilarious on grainy, black-and-white film supposedly dug out of some vault. The contrast between what we've been conditioned to expect on this kind of film—serious news footage —and Allen's mugging makes for inspired comedy.

The confuse the issue even further, some of the "contemporary" interviews are with real intellectuals (playing themselves) and some are with actors playing older versions of characters in the "newsreels."

Zelig is a movie with a full-length gimmick and people who don't care for gimmicks might get tired of it. But the story is interesting—if completely ridiculous—on its own. And the old photos and films are fascinating. They would be fun to watch unaltered, but here an additional element is present: was that really Hitler? or Carole Lombard? or Babe Ruth?

Woody Allen's movies have always had a good measure of both slapstick and highbrow comedy. And Zelig is no exception. The movie can probably be enjoyed by someone who doesn't know who F. Scott Fitzgerald and Bruno Bettelheim are. But people who do will enjoy it more, provided they don't mind intellectual name-dropping in the cause of comedy.

Zelig has the ability to change his physical characteristics to resemble those of the people around him. He developed this talent—or affliction—because he wanted to belong, to be liked. As one of the interviewed intellectuals (a real one) points out, we all feel this need, of course.

So Zelig's story may not be so outlandish after all. Allen usually has more on his mind than just laughs. His affection for Zelig and his public are catching. But the best thing about Zelig is the wonderfully inventive way his story is told.

September 28, 1983

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