Love him, hate him, or perhaps even both, there’s no denying Woody Allen’s drive and imagination as both a filmmaker and a storyteller. By this point in his career, there isn’t a single genre of film The Woodman hasn’t tackled, be it magical realism with Midnight in Paris or gut-wrenching human drama with Interiors. Looking over Allen’s vast filmography, one the few titles which tends to be unfairly, yet at the same time understandably, skipped over is his 1983 comedy Zelig, in which the director presented a most unconventional offering into the world of the mockumentary.
In Zelig, Allen plays the title character, Leonard Zelig, a 1920s man with a special ability; namely, the power to physically transform himself into any type of person, regardless of shape, size, or nationality. Leonard’s condition makes him both a celebrity as a well an endlessly fascinating experimental subject, particularly for the lovely and intelligent Dr. Eudora Nesbitt Fletcher (Mia Farrow). Filmed as a real-life documentary, Zelig follows its central character as he deals with his condition while the world looks on in sheer wonder.
On a technical level, Zelig is Allen’s boldest and most inventive film to date. It is nothing short of impressive the way Leonard is so carefully and seamlessly inserted into actual archival footage, such as at a Yankees game with Babe Ruth or shaking hands with playwright Eugene O’Neill. From an experimental standpoint, Allen has never been this out there. What could have played as outlandish and farcical ends up being extremely hilarious due to how the finished product comes across. Apart from the comedy, the audience has every reason to believe this is an actual documentary as they watch one famous personality after another turn up with Leonard right by his or her side. Meanwhile, figures such as Saul Bellow and Susan Sontag appear as themselves, offering up present-day commentary, which gives a kind of heightened hilarity to Zelig.
Zelig is an Allen comedy if there ever was one, and the director has ensured that his one-of-a-kind brand of humor doesn’t get lost in the high-concept plot, but rather manages to shine alongside it. While the therapy sessions between him and Eudora are full of Allen wonderfully doing Allen, it’s watching the actual transformations which offer up the most laughs. Seeing Leonard gain 50 pounds when surrounded by two obese men and instantly turn black when surrounded with two African-American men is tremendously side-splitting, while the dialogue offers some of the director’s best. “I worked with Freud in Vienna,” Leonard states while believing himself to be a famous psychiatrist. “We broke up over the concept of penis envy. Freud felt that it should be limited to women.” The comedic script extends as far as the film’s narration with hilarious lines such as, “The Ku Klux Klan, who saw Zelig as a Jew that could turn himself into a Negro and an Indian, saw him as a triple threat,” being delivered with the utmost seriousness.
While most of the film contains footage made to look vintage, there are very few scenes where Leonard actually speaks. It hardly matters, however, as Allen garners laugh after laugh thanks to this prime opportunity for him to showcase what a great physical comedian he is, whether blending in with a group of black men or waving romantically to Eudora as Hitler tries to give his speech. For her part, this may be the weakest role out of all the wonderful characters Allen ever wrote for Farrow, but the actress still brings her trademark loveliness to the role.
The fact that Zelig took years to complete, during which time other more highly-regarded Allen offerings such as A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and Broadway Danny Rose were filmed and released, may be the reason the director has preferred less technical and experimental films. Meanwhile, the fact that Zelig was released the same year as the ultimate mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap, could be pointed to as the cause behind the film’s small reputation today. However, Zelig’s hilariously brilliant concept and Allen’s revolutionary execution of it remains further proof of his standing as one of the most talented figures in all of cinema.
Zelig is now available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.