If we must have bogus documentaries, they should all be made by Woody Allen. This one was made in 1983 and immediately became one of Allen’s most generally acclaimed works. I have to admit that it’s never been one of my favorites—mostly because it’s essentially a single-joke premise stretched out to feature length. However, as single jokes go, it’s a good one, and it’s undeniably an amazing technical achievement. It was, in fact, the technical aspect of the film that seems to have appealed to Allen in the first place—that, and I’m guessing, the chance to pop up in newsreel footage with Hitler.
The premise has Woody playing Leonard Zelig, a self-effacing little man who just happens to have the uncanny—and inexplicable—ability to transform himself into the image of those he’s around. This chameleon-like ability turns Zelig into a celebrity of his era—with everything that entails, from Zelig look-alike contests (Zelig enters, but doesn’t win) to having novelty songs written about him. (In a charming touch, Allen had Mae Questel—the voice of Betty Boop, who had once been sued by Helen Kane for impersonating her—sing the supposed Helen Kane recording of the song.) There’s really little more to the film than this—though the plot itself details Zelig’s relationship with the psychiatrist, Dr. Eudora Nesbitt Fletcher (Mia Farrow), who’s both studying and treating him—and the gags that can be strung along the premise.
More of the film works than doesn’t thanks to the cleverness of Allen’s jokes, but even at a scant 79 minutes the film feels slightly padded. I’d never call it a major Woody Allen work, but even a lesser Allen film—at least one that isn’t trying too hard for heavy drama—is usually better than most filmmaker’s major films.