First screened and reviewed in August 1998
Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Ellen Garrison, Stephanie Farrow, Sol Lomita. Screenplay: Woody Allen.

Twitter Capsule: Incorrigible imitator's apt self-diagnosis but also a narrow stunt, showing by contrast how much more he's usually got going.

VOR:   Faux-documentary wasn't done to death in 1983. Still less were Where's Waldo? stunts. Willis's rendering of those amazes.

Photo © 1983 Orion Pictures
The curse of filmmakers as consistently ingenious as Woody Allen is that when they make low-scale, easy charmers like Zelig, you can't help but wish they had gone a little further. In truth, Zelig, at a mere 79 minutes, probably exists at the precise length at which its laughs are still reliable but without wearing thin the central gimmick: namely, that Leonard Zelig, played by Allen, was a now-forgotten media sensation of the 1920s and 1930s who popped up in a whole swath of landmark cultural events. Zelig's milquetoast mug arises in environments ranging from the Yankees' dugout (batting behind Gehrig) to affluent parties attended by the Fitzgeralds to, perhaps most memorably, a Nazi rally. Such omnipresence is further complicated by what the fake-documentary perspective of the film calls a "medical phenomenon" by which Zelig, "The Human Chameleon," physically registers the defining ethnic or outward characteristics of whomever he is closest to in a room. Thus we are also treated to scrumptious eye-candy ploys like Allen made up as a Chinese restauranteur, or a scat trumpet-player in a Harlem nightclub, though the narrator comments that Zelig's tested proximity to women or to animals has yielded no similar effects. Perhaps Woody Allen in drag was too much for us to hope for or, more likely, too much for us to stand.

Zelig's only other primary character is Mia Farrow's Dr. Eudora Fletcher, who is determined to prove that Zelig's condition is a habitus of mind not body, thus winning her an audience with Freud and other "contemporaries." Slender though it is, this amusing and suggestive film remains as nimble and lively as one of Forrest Gump's champion ping-pong balls, especially since Allen's superimpositions of himself into archival footage are consistently wittier and less obvious than those in Gump's more belabored and maudlin pop picaresque a decade later. It also bears mentioning that none of Allen's gags, not even the climactic Hitler rally (which is uproarious), emanates the bad taste of, say, Forrest's cheeky appearance at George Wallace's one-man effort to keep the University of Alabama segregated. And the technical wizardry of Zelig extends far beyond the jerry-rigging required to make Zelig believably "historic." The brilliant cinematographer Gordon Willis (sorcerer of the Godfather trilogy, and Allen's accomplice from Annie Hall to The Purple Rose of Cairo) finally and deservedly copped his first Oscar nomination for his uncanny simulation of flickery, silent-era frame rates and film exposure. The photography alone makes Zelig a great treat to watch, offering further proof that Allen's gag-based humor and tonal accessibility, particularly in projects like this, belies an often understated but considerable craftsmanship in the technical aspects of his films.

All of that said, Zelig, like most gimmick pictures, is a relatively self-contained affair that dissipates rather quickly in the memory and certainly yields none of the breathtaking moments, comedic or otherwise, of a bona fide Allen triumph like Hannah and Her Sisters or other collaborations with Willis. There is barely a thing to be said against Zelig except that, much like Allen's equally gag-driven What's Up, Tiger Lily, its pleasures could have been conceived and delivered by many other filmmakers, whereas his best projects are barely imaginable coming from anyone else. That may sound odd, since few filmmakers have betrayed as much overt, symptomatic reliance on Bergman, Fellini, Chekhov, and other touchstones of screen and stage. In some sense, Zelig is the perfect Allen vehicle, emblematic of his willingness to subsume his own sensibility to those of his idols while still somehow appearing distinctive. But he is distinctive, more so than an Allen-as-Zelig thesis allows, though this idea has pervaded reviews of the movie and has clearly occurred to its maker. The characterizations and the New York-inflected sensibility that makes even a flawed film like Interiors different from its European models, or makes Husbands and Wives into something tougher and much richer than just Scenes from Two Other Marriages, are unmistakably Allen's. They are coherent across his work, even if he sometimes has to stand on tall, borrowed shoulders to attain them. Zelig plays more than Allen's best movies do as though he had the Chameleon Complex and spent a couple of months around Mel Brooks. It thus feels more broadly imitative and thinner in implication than his other work, in every way except that of Allen's own auto-diagnosis as a fan of homage, a blatant and sometimes self-pillaging plagiarist, neurotically focused on how well or not he measures up to his idols.

What is true of that insight is true of the film: it's hard to argue with, but then again, how far does it get you? There's infinitely more to say and to relish about The Purple Rose of Cairo, including its evident debts to Keaton and to 30s melodramas, than there is to say about this film that's more frontally "about" Allen's own inclinations as an artist. Zelig is unimpeachable entertainment, and has many more laughs than the rather monotonous Tiger Lily, but it's a good evening's fun whose specifics will most likely be forgotten by morning—a funny and ready-made prism through which to consider Allen, but a second-tier option if you're really looking to savor him. Grade: B

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Best Costume Design: Santo Loquasto

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): Woody Allen

Other Awards:
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Cinematography

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