MGM // 1983 // 79 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // October 11th, 2001
ZELIG. Zelig. zelig. zELig. ZeLiG.
Long before there was Robert Zemeckis inserting footage of Tom Hanks into archival newsreels there was Woody Allen's comedic faux-documentary Zelig. Surprising both critics and audiences with something completely new and strange, Zelig told the story of one man's yearning to fit into society so much that he magically morphed into his surroundings with ease. Allen and then wife Mia Farrow make national headlines (at least in the confines of Zelig) in this strange film (part of the "Woody Allen Collection 3") from MGM and "The Woodinator."
Pity poor Leonard Zelig (Allen), for he knows not who he is. Zelig follows the story of this timid man in the '20s who wants so much to be loved and adored that he will do almost anything to be accepted, including meld into someone else! Leonard possesses the unique ability to look and act like the people he is around -- whether it be Black, Chinese, Irish or Greek, Leonard can literally transform into any of these personalities. The story of Zelig is told in documentary style complete with old newsreel footage from the 1920s and '30s, plus rare photos, interviews, audio recordings and home movies about the life of Leonard Zelig. The movie traces his rise to stardom for his fantastical feat to the depths of public hated for various crimes he is soon charged with due to his multiple "personalities." All the while Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Farrow) attempts to cure Leonard of his condition while subsequently falling in love with this genetic anomaly.
I'm a pretty big fan of Woody Allen's work. I have my favorites (Annie Hall, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* But Were Afraid To Ask, Crimes & Misdemeanors), and I have some not so favorites (Celebrity, Shadows and Fog). I'd say that Zelig falls somewhere in between these movies.
I really liked the idea behind Zelig. Much like successor Forrest Gump, Zelig takes past historical events and sticks a fictional character convincingly into the middle of them. Be it author F. Scott Fitzgerald, Babe Ruth or Adolph Hitler, Zelig takes the liberty of plopping its reluctant hero in the middle of world events with comical results. There's nothing funnier than seeing a baffled Allen waving to Mia Farrow from behind a bombastic Hitler, or watching Woody transform himself into a Rabbi or an overweight Greek restaurant patron. Director of photography Gordon Willis (The Godfather) successfully captures the look of an old time newsreel by "ruining good footage to create the time-ravaged look" of the film. If nothing else Zelig is a technical marvel of splicing together the past and the present into one seamless movie.
Zelig can almost be seen as Allen's look at his own celebrity. Allen is known as the type of filmmaker who likes doing movies, but hates the publicity surrounding them. The fact that he is a brilliant filmmaker also makes his life a paradox; the more people see his movies, the more they clamor for more. In fact, I'd assume that Allen would probably rather just make films on his own as a hobby than show them to the world. Much like Allen, the Zelig character only wants to live his life simply, but because of his extraordinary talent, he is blown into a full-fledged, world renowned oddity.
However, Zelig just doesn't rank with the best of Allen's films. While there are many amusing sequences and lines, Zelig doesn't have the substantial weight of better Allen films. The ideas behind Zelig are fun and interesting, but for this viewer they just don't make for a truly great feature length film. This is not to say that Zelig is not a fine movie or not worth seeing. I certainly enjoyed Zelig and thought it had a lot of good things to offer. Allen once again plays a variation on himself, with Farrow playing a variation on herself. Both actors do a nice job, and Allen once again gives himself some of the better lines of the movie (a rant about a class Leonard teaches on masturbation is hysterical, especially when he's paranoid that he might be late and the class may "start without him").
Fans of Woody Allen's work will undoubtedly enjoy Zelig. Visually the film is a spectacular and enjoyable, especially for those who thrive on jazz music or the roaring 1920s. Zelig is a film that may not be Allen's finest work, but like his other efforts it's different, odd and a unique cinematic experience.
Zelig is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. You simply can't judge this movie's video quality by today's DVD standards as the point of the film is to look old and dated. Zelig is successful at this with celluloid that is littered with grain, dirt, scratches, breaks and everything else that make a film look worn. Some shots are out of focus while a few are in color, though with a washed out and grainy look. Compared to something like Armageddon, Zelig looks fantastically terrible. But for what Zelig is supposed to look like, it gets the highest of marks.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital Mono and is also fitting for this project. Voices often had a distorted quality to them, and the old time music often sounded warbled and inaudible. Much like the video quality this is a very horrible presentation. However, that's the way Allen intended it to be and as such it works wonderfully in the confines of his story. Also included on this disc are English, French and Spanish subtitles.
The only extra feature available on this disc (much like all the Woody Allen discs from MGM) is an odd theatrical trailer presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Zelig is available on its own or in the third Woody Allen box set from MGM. While I found Zelig to be an enjoyable enough film, I don't think that it's something I need to have in my DVD collection. Definitely worth a rental, Zelig should entertain as well as enlighten (for who amongst us doesn't want to see Allen, the quintessential Jew, as an African American from the 1920s?).
Zelig is free to go, as is MGM for a decent release.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 79 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Original Theatrical Trailer