By Richard Winters
My Rating: 4 out of 10
4-Word Review: Wanting to fit in.
Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) is a man living in the 1920’s and 30’s who has an uncanny ability to reflect the personalities and features of those he’s surrounded with. Even if he’s in the company of someone of a different race, or ethnicity, he can still acquire their traits, including their skin color, until he looks exactly like them. He becomes known as a the human chameleon and Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) , a psychiatrist, becomes determined to find the root cause. She takes him on as a patient and under intense hypnosis comes to the realization that his deep need to be liked by others causes him to conform to the most extreme ways imaginable. Through her therapy she gets him to become more confident in expressing his own opinions, but this leads to him arguing with others over the most mundane reasons, which leads to several fights. She again puts him under hypnosis, so that he’ll become more of centrist, but this then leads to even further complications.
Allen was inspired to do this movie when his friend Dick Cavett was hosting a history series on HBO and a segment was done where Cavett’s likeness got spliced into an historical image. While the effects of using old newsreel footage and photos from long ago and inserting in cast members to make it seem like they were there when the picture was taken may not seem like that big of a deal today, but back in the 80’s it was very much talked about. I remember an entire segment of CBS Morning News hosted by Diane Sawyer going in depth about the ‘incredible’ special effects and ‘how did they do it?’ With digital filmmaking and movies like Forrest Gump we’re used to it, but back then it was state-of-the-art and got nominated for several awards. To help make it look as authentic as possible cinematographer Gordon Willis used vintage cameras and lenses from the 20’s and then stomped on the negatives of the film in his shower to help create the crinkles and scratches.
While telling the story through newsreel footage is certainly diverting and many times amusing I was fully expecting after about 20 minutes or so that it would eventually become more like a normal movie with the plot being propelled by actual characters, dialogue, and conventional scene structure, but instead it sticks with the novelty until the bitter end, which for me was a mistake as it makes the viewer too detached from the people in the movie to the point that they become distant caricatures that we really care nothing about. Much comedy is also lost as everything hinges on the voice-over narration of Patrick Horgan and how he describes what’s going on versus having it played out. A great example of this is when Allen gets into an argument with someone over whether ‘it’s a nice day, or not’, but all we see of it is some grainy, black-and-white figures in a distance that appear to be squabbling when witnessing the actual argument in real-time would’ve been so much funnier.
My favorite moment had nothing do with the special effects, but instead was the scene with Farrow and Allen where she tricks him, using reverse psychology, into admitting he really wasn’t a psychiatrist like her, and the movie needed more segments like this one. The vintage footage is nice for awhile and highly creative, but ultimately makes it come-off like a one-note joke, or an experimental film that’s misses the most basic elements of a good story, which is character development. It’s a shame too as Farrow gives a strong performance, which gets overshadowed. Usually she’s best at playing emotionally fragile types, but here is a strong woman and does quite well though I thought it was ridiculous that in color segments where here character is speaking in the modern day as an old woman another actress, Ellen Garrison, plays the part when they could’ve easily had Farrow doing it by dying her hair gray and putting on a few wrinkles. So much effort was put into the black-and-white vintage stuff that they forgot about the simplest of all special effects: stage make-up.
There’s also a host of other famous faces that have cameo bits as they talk about the fictional Zelig in the modern-day like historians discussing a past event, or famous person. Of these includes Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, and John Morton Blum, but like with the newsreel element it gets overplayed and derivative. It also brings to question what exactly was the movies’ point. Was it a satire on conformity and if so it could’ve gone much deeper, or poking fun at documentaries, which could’ve been played-up much more too. In either case it’s a misfire that’s engaging for awhile, but eventually, even with its short runtime, wears itself out.
My Rating: 4 out of 10
Released: July 15, 1983
Runtime: 1 Hour 19 Minutes
Director: Woody Allen
Studio: Orion Pictures
Available: DVD, Blu-ray