Zelig (1983)
Zelig (1983)

Genre: Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 19 min.

Release Date: July 29th, 1983 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Woody Allen Actors: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Patrick Horgan, John Buckwalter, Marvin Chatinover, Paul Nevens




t certainly is a very bizarre story.” Presented as a documentary, narrated by Patrick Horgan, the tale begins in 1928 at a Long Island estate, where patrons of the arts rub elbows with the cream of high society. Of note is aristocrat Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen), boasting an upper-class Boston accent, who is later seen speaking with the wait staff, behaving in a completely opposite manner, managing to blend in with the help. A year later, at the New York Yankees training camp, a batter appears up next behind Babe Ruth: the man is called Lou Zelig, but no one on the team seems to know who he is, resulting in the impostor’s expulsion from the premises. That same year, in a Chicago speakeasy, Zelig turns up again, posing as both a gangster and a black musician. Meanwhile, detectives attempt to track down a suspicious clerk also known as Zelig, who is followed into Chinatown, where he’s seen perfectly aping an oriental person.

Apprehended and taken to a Manhattan hospital, Zelig is studied by psychiatrist Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), who is fascinated by the subject’s ability to rapidly change demeanor, language, and behavior. When in the company of people with varying ethnicities and disparate careers, Zelig is capable of metamorphosing his knowledge, speech patterns, and even components of his physical features to match those around him. He’s a human chameleon, even though this phenomenon is dubbed a psychological disorder. It’s also possible his condition was brought about by an abusive childhood. “Life is a meaningless nightmare of suffering,” his father insisted.

Despite the documentary presentation, with real talking heads (including Susan Sontag, Irving Howe, and Saul Bellow) interviewed (in color), as well as fake commentators, in an alternating pattern with black-and-white contemporary footage, newspaper headlines (and Pathe News notes and newsreels), stock photos, still images, sound bites, and more (there are even scenes from a fake Warner Bros. movie thrown in), the story itself is just outrageous enough that it never quite feels legitimate. It’s almost too obviously a satire. Nevertheless, it’s quite amusing that this goofy mockumentary premiered a year before “This Is Spinal Tap” – which approached its tongue-in-cheek concept with a slightly greater degree of sincerity (and to longer-lasting influence).

Even though Zelig’s case blends slapsticky humor with over-the-top weirdness and supernatural qualities (following along with elements of the Elephant Man, whose abnormalities proved unfortunately exploitable), it sticks faithfully to the design of a documentary from a bygone era. And once the bulk of the ludicrousness subsides (including racial jokes like blackface, which won’t age well), there’s even a hint of genuine tragedy and an examination of self-identity, as Zelig’s intentions to simply coalesce with society and to be liked have turned him into “… a non-person, a performing freak.” He’s a superstar of the ’20s, enjoying worldwide renown, yet he’s crushingly alone.

“You’re a patient, and I’m the doctor.” “Zelig” is excellently paced, smartly conceived, cleverly written, and impressively different from writer/director Woody Allen’s previous efforts (in his own way, the auteur possesses a chameleonic skill with crafting fresh projects, even if the link is Allen’s own nervous, neurotic protagonist). And it’s also incredibly funny, a sharp comedy made sweeter by an encroaching love story and the turmoil that soon surrounds that momentary escapism for the fateful world of Zelig’s extraordinary malady. It may not be his most popular picture, but it’s remarkably delightful.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10