elig is a lovingly crafted film written by, directed by, and starring Woody Allen. The film features the irreverent slapstick gags only Allen can deliver, but it also invites you to look beyond its novelty and jokes to something much more ingenious at its core. Zelig is the quintessential mockumentary, and it was made a whole year before This is Spinal Tap.
Allen’s portrayal of the title character is mainly depicted through the voice of a hammy narrator, (Patrick Horgan) over a series of authentic-looking talking head interviews and grainy newsreel footage. Real archive footage is seamlessly blended with parody, giving the film a palpable realism. While I wouldn’t describe the film as side-splitting, the humour seems to operate at a deeper level, making us think more than it makes us laugh.
Woody Allen plays Leonard Zelig, a man dubbed ‘the human chameleon’ because of his ability to magically assume the characteristics and ethnicities of those around him. While this premise is absurd, the underlying themes it explores are pragmatic. Zelig struggles with the pressures of fame, freak show ostracism and his own battles with identity.
The film can be read as an intimate exploration into Hollywood, human nature and Allen’s career. The Zelig character is used as a vehicle for Allen to express his own meditations on his profession as a comedian and character actor – constantly assuming different identities and in the limelight. He presents being an actor as a disease one needs to be cured of. He dissects the pressures of being the focus of public voyeurism, and the fickle nature of Hollywood. His Jewish identity is also examined, as he transforms into a Rabbi, and later, rather poignantly, a Nazi.
Painting a portrait of a period of US history, the film is set in 1920s and 1930s America, and provides a delightful historical pastiche of New York in the age of Jazz music and speakeasies. Much like Forrest Gump – which would follow a decade later – our hero becomes enmeshed with various historical figures, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler. The special effects, while simple by today’s standards, still hold up flawlessly.
Through Zelig’s psychiatrist Doctor Fletcher – who is played by Allen’s then real life wife Mia Farrow – we delve into not only Zelig’s crisis of identity, but also the perception of woman. As she struggles to be taken seriously, she becomes a droll source of satire. As Zelig’s abilities become a tourist attraction, the film cleverly lampoons capitalism and the film industry, becoming very meta when trashy Hollywood film adaptations of Zelig’s story are shown.
Over three decades later, Zelig still endures as a film with a great message and an extraordinary hero – breaking free of his chameleon identity, and later using his ability to break free from the oppression of the modern world – Zelig inspires us as well as makes as chuckle.