Classic Capsule: Zelig (1983)

Zelig may not be Woody Allen’s most entertaining movie, but it is certainly his most brilliant (if not his most involved). Compared with traditional Woody Allen vehicles of old, projects rife with A-list appearances and recognizable locations, Zelig remains a bit of an anomaly – uncharacteristically complex to the point of exhaustion (Allen actually completed work on two additional movies – A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and Broadway Danny Rose – before wrapping up on Zelig).

Consider Zelig‘s attention to detail – splicing characters into newsreels, inserting still-frames into photos, shooting – and then transferring – entire sequences on blue-screen, making use of antique film cameras and lenses. Zelig‘s first full hour required an entire warehouse of elaborate costumes. It required location shoots and clearances and historical accuracy based on research. It required an original score and jazz-age arrangements. It required the false invention of a post-World-War-I dance craze. It required all of these things and so very much more. And yet, the final product appears almost impeccable – a near-perfect document save for Allen’s cringe-worthy parade of one-liners (e.g., “I have this masturbation class. If I’m not there they start without me.”)

“I feel more secure with the funny stuff,” Allen explained during a 1979 interview. “I feel that if an audience pays their admission, at least if they laugh they won’t feel cheated.”

To that end, Allen injects Zelig with constant fits of cornball humor … time and time and time again. And yet it works. One way or another, the whole damn thing just works. In fact, Zelig works to the extent that it was nominated for two Academy Awards in 1984 (It was nominated for a pair of Golden Globes, as well). Zelig works to the extent that it’s the only Woody Allen movie to be included on Spike Lee’s List Of Films You Must See If You Want To Make Films. Zelig works to the extent that critically-acclaimed motion pictures like A Mighty Wind and Forrest Gump would not exist without it.

And yet – despite all of the brilliant cinematography – it’s Zelig‘s central premise that lends the film its radiance. For here we find a blue-collar schlub so desperate to be liked that he assumes the actual mannerisms and appearance of any group he happens to infiltrate. What’s more? This schmo is suddenly embraced as a celebrity, revered the more adept he proves at imitating mass pop culture. Zelig is social commentary at its best, particularly acute throughout one scene during which Dr. Eudora Fletcher (played by Mia Farrow) attempts to convince a room full of academics that Zelig’s behavior is actually an involuntary response. The entire audience, every member of which is dressed and groomed identically, furrows its brow in disbelief.

Therein lies the beauty of Allen’s Zelig. There are just so many depths to be explored here, so many caverns to be mined. Despite all the various hills and valleys Allen has experienced since, all the various phases and film muses, Zelig remains the absolute pinnacle of his genius. It is so simple, yet complex, to chronicle the human condition in this way.

“I just wanted to be liked,” Leonard Zelig explained.

(Zelig is currently streaming – along with subtitles – via Youtube.)  

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