Love him or hate him, Woody Allen is an undeniable part of American Cinema’s tapestry, having steadily cranked out one fascinating exploration into his neurotic psyche after another. Zelig is one of his best- a beautiful formalist experiment in the service of comedy, blending archival footage with Allen’s own footage to create a fictional account of a chameleon-like man who could instantly change features. An innocent victim of his own freakish nature, Zelig manages to worm himself into the heart of American culture with one hapless bumble after another.
If this sounds a little like Forrest Gump, that’s because it is- or, rather, Gump rips Zelig off in obvious ways, turning Allen’s brilliant little idea into a milquetoast blend of clichés and Hallmark Cards too painfully saccharine to sit through. Not so with Zelig, though; beautifully edited, it takes absurdity to its own logical conclusion, using the fictional Leonard Zelig as a stand-in for everyman existentialism.
In an age before Photoshop, Zelig is a delight and fascination- a superbly crafted collage of fake newspapers and old films that truly feel authentic. Riding the line between his early comedic nuttiness like Take the Money and Run and his later, more serious films, Zelig‘s nostalgic attention to detail- from jazz sides to novelty toys, from interviews with real-life figures like Susan Sontag to doctored footage of Adolf Hitler and Zelig at Nazi rallies- makes for such a perfect documentary, only Allen’s tell-tale mug gives it away. Today’s mockumentaries don’t even come close to reaching Zelig’s feeling of authenticity.
But Zelig is more than just technical cleverness; in his goofball intellectual way, Allen asks a lot of questions about the nature of identity- especially within society. Zelig goes from obscure nobody to national sensation to nobody again- a piece of pop culture fodder awarded his fifteen minutes of fame. Leonard Zelig’s chameleon superpower grants him the uncontrollable ability to assume any ethnic identity on Earth; contemporary audiences might get triggered at the sight of Allen in blackface, but Allen’s gag forces us to ask ourselves what “race” is, anyway: a non-existent physical quality that we invented but can’t seem to get over.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Woody Allen movie if there wasn’t a love story in there somewhere- this one comes via Mia Farrow, playing Dr. Eudora Fletcher- the doctor who never quits on Zelig in her quest to cure him from his ailment. The love story gives the film a narrative structure beyond the novelty premise, and the narrative allows plenty of social commentary and satire as Woody asks who is Leonard Zelig? And who are you?
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