Zelig (1983)

Posted: March 3, 2015 in Movie Review
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Zelig (1983)

Director: Woody Allen

Starring: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow

A common conceit of biographies is that the subject, being deceased, is unable to speak on his or her own behalf. There are ways around this, with the right amount of research and testimony from key eyewitnesses. Competently composed, the resulting documentary can be both informative and entertaining. Still, you’d like to be able to know from the horse’s own mouth what he was thinking or feeling. Especially if that person existed as recently as the twentieth century, then there’s no problem. That’s why we invented the movie camera.

Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) was a man with a most unusual talent. Slipping in and out of the public eye during the 1920’s and 1930’s, Zelig wanted more than most to fit in with the crowd and so, through means that continue to defy reasoned explanation, was able to transform himself in a most chameleon-like way. Put him in a room with a shrink, and he would engage in psychological debates. Let him near the New York Yankees, he’d behave as though he was a member of the team. Depending on a politician’s party affiliation, Zelig could become either Democrat or Republican. He could instantly begin to mimic the accents and languages of anyone from any corner of the world. No matter whether people he came in contact with were white, black, Asian, Native American, thin or obese, Zelig’s physical appearance could change to appear just like that person.

It’s stuff like this which made Zelig a national sensation. Movies and songs were written about him. The big dance craze of the day was the Chameleon. But as seems to happen so often in the life of a celebrity, in the wake of a sex scandal, Zelig’s star would fall just as easily as it rose. In between it all, there was only one person capable of breaking Zelig out of his compulsive physical and mental mutations, the psychiatrist Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow). After many sessions of trial and error, Dr. Fletcher decided to pretend that she, too, was someone who had to constantly change her personality to blend in. It worked. Zelig’s cycle of transformation was broken and he could finally begin to start living a normal life. The sex scandal screwed that up, of course, and it left Dr. Fletcher, who had come to love Zelig, to undertake a dangerous trek into pre-WWII Nazi Germany in search of him, which is chronicled in the documentary’s final ten or so minutes.

After the disappointing “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy,” I was looking for something a bit different from Woody Allen. With the mockumentary “Zelig,” I could not have asked for a larger deviation from the norm. The imagination that went into this project is awe-inspiring. As someone who enjoys the occasional documentaries on PBS, the History channel and the Travel channel, I applaud Allen for giving his movie the authenticity it requires. The newsreel footage all looks accurate for the period, thanks to some deliberate scratching of the film to help give it that long-ago look. Because Zelig hobnobs with a lot of real-life figures, including various Hollywood actors, two U.S. Presidents and Adolf Hitler, Allen needed for himself and Mia Farrow to be spliced into the scenes with these historical figures. The results are virtually seamless, and the technology used would help inspire similar technical achievements in films like “Forrest Gump.”

Also surprising is Mia Farrow, after her bland performance in “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.” Had she been similarly sub-par here, it would have sunk “Zelig” entirely. I completely bought her as a psychiatrist who first takes on the Zelig case to make a name for herself, switching gears when she hears him admit he’s fallen in love with her and, then, discovering that she feels the same. In the end, though, the special effects of “Zelig” are its strongest point. They are, in every way, above average. The story of the man called Zelig, with extra points for creativity, is merely “good.”

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