05 February 2011

My Movies Z to A: Zelig (1983)

About the series: My Movies Z to A is a series of short movie reviews of all the movies I own on video, in reverse alphabetical order. Honestly, I'm doing it for myself: my memory's not what it used to be and writing these entries really helps with recall later. Plus, I own movies that I've never watched, so going through the collection systematically should motivate me to watch them in their turn. But I also hope that you enjoy the reviews as well. To see them all, just click the "My Movies Z to A" label in the label cloud. Thanks for reading!

Polish film poster culled from

Brief Summary (with main cast and no spoilers)

Set in the period between the wars, in the early 20th century, Woody Allen's Zelig is a fake documentary about the life of "human chameleon," Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen), whose pathological insecurity makes him conform—in personality and physique—to practically anyone with whom he interacts. When psychologist Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) commits herself to curing Zelig of his neurosis, she's attacked by her peers in the profession, and she's stymied by Zelig's persistent inability to understand who he is.

My Comments (may include spoilers)

It's been many years since I first saw Zelig—probably during a Woody Allen binge shortly after college. I remembered liking it very much, and on seeing it again, I was reminded that there's a lot to like. First and foremost, for me, is the quality of the production. While watching the "mockumentary," I was reminded most strongly of the fictional newsreel at the beginning of Citizen Kane. The special effects used to insert Zelig into actual historical scenes, and to create sequences that appear to be antique home movies and archival footage are reminiscent of the exuberant filmmaking that went into the "News on the March" sequence in the iconic Welles-Toland movie.

Of course, a later film was also called to mind. I couldn't help thinking of all the gushing praise for the way digital technology was used to create the illusion of Forrest Gump shaking hands with Kennedy or meeting Nixon, or whatever. But Zelig maintains the historical illusion for 80 minutes, and without the technology available to Zemeckis and company (all of whom I spit upon, once again, for being the unworthy recipients of so much ill-deserved adulation).

The documentary vibe is created with a loving attention to detail: the visual and sound effects are nearly perfect in upholding the ruse, and the narrator's voice is pitch-perfect. The only flaw, I thought, was Farrow, whose appearance, demeanor, and voice always seem anachronistic—too modern for the 20s and 30s...or, too modern for my movie-based impression of what she should have looked and sounded like, anyway.

I don't know if it's just because I'm feeling a bit ADHD today, or if it's because I'm procrastinating and should be working on a pressing job right now—or if it's really a problem of the film itself, but I kind of lost interest about 2/3 of the way through. It was as if the fake documentary style and the central conceit of the film just weren't enough to sustain it for all of 80 minutes.

That said, though, I'd still give the movie 7 stars out of 10, and I recommend it for people who like Woody Allen, fake documentaries, and/or dry (yet frequently absurd) comedy.

Random Tidbits

  • One of the things I enjoy most about the movie are the very characteristic Woody Allenisms uttered by Zelig, like when he fabricates an argument with Sigmund Freud and explains that the parted ways over penis envy, which Zelig didn't think should be limited to women.
  • I also enjoy the satire, much of which is delivered by the actual celebrities who play contemporary interview subjects in the "documentary." One of my favorite lines is when two newspaper reporters reminisce about the Zelig craze, marveling that, with Zelig, "you just told the truth, and it sold papers—that had never happened before!"


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