Woody Allen's documentary parody on a fictitious celebrity of the Twenties and Thirties, known as the "human chameleon." Allen owes something to his own earlier documentary parody, Take the Money and Run, something -- a lot, actually -- to Citizen Kane (the newsreel facsimile), something to Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (the intermingling of old footage and new), and something to Reds (the interviews with expert witnesses). The special effects here, if we can remember to speak of special effects as something other than bug-eyed monsters, laser rays, and the gelatinous ooze that emanates from the one when punctured by the other, yield nothing to those in Kane. In sharp contrast to the often undisciplined fancifulness of special effects in the horror and sci-fi genres, these are conceived and executed within classical constraints, the authentic archive footage providing both a model and a measuring stick. It takes a special sort of audacity for a parodist to do away with his traditional safety net -- the generalizing and dimming effects of memory -- and to hold up the original directly alongside the imitation. Outside of the aforementioned Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, no other example leaps to mind, and that other one offers far less to back up its show of audacity. Zelig backs up its own, on the other hand, down to every last scratch on the emulsion, every sprocket jump, every halting pan, every faded gray, every crackle-and-pop on the soundtrack. In view of all that and much else, it would not be overstating the case to note that all the real excitement in Zelig takes place precisely on the surface, and often on very restricted areas of that surface. This excitement runs a little low, eventually, even at only eighty-three minutes (give or take). With Mia Farrow. (1983) — Duncan Shepherd
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