Woody Allen’s “funny” films often blossomed from a broad concept. He might parody Tolstoy (Love and Death), sci-fi (Sleeper), or convict documentaries (Take the Money and Run) and find many avenues of humor to travel from those central destinations. Occasionally, his concepts feel a bit more like gimmicks, such as the intentionally badly dubbed spy-movie What’s Up, Tiger Lily? or the weightless musical Everyone Says I Love You. Zelig falls somewhere in the middle ground between brilliant parody and gimmick flick.
Its concept—Woody plays a guy who physically and philosophically takes on the characteristics of the people surrounding him while having no true identity or ideology of his own—is definitely gimmicky, and the film is not nearly as funny as Love and Death, Sleeper, or Take the Money and Run (its funniest scenes find Zelig believing himself to be the doctor during psychoanalytic sessions), but Allen does find more to work with than he did with his other gimmick pictures. His attack on conformity and the way a lack of ideals can abet the rise of fascism ensures his film is no ideology-deprived Leonard Zelig, though the neat trick of transforming his features in make up and placing him in historical photographs ultimately devolves into a repetitive device that carries too much of the picture. Things also get dicey when he starts morphing into a black jazz musician, a feather-capped Native American, a robed Asian, and a Mexican in a mariachi band. Fortunately, he cannot transform into a woman. Whether or not he can transform into a chicken is left unanswered.
As is often the case in Allen’s eighties films, it’s up to Mia Farrow to infuse the film with some heart, and she does so as a psychologist determined to find the man inside the chameleon. Of course, she ends up falling in love with him, which is almost as confounding as the real Farrow falling in love with the real Allen. Conforming with both romantic comedy clichés and Woody Allen-movie clichés, I guess there is a little bit of Zelig in Zelig, after all.
Zelig presents a particular challenge in terms of high-definition presentation as it is a mixed bag of scratchy "vintage" stock and "contemporary" color footage. The vintage footage that dominates the movie is deliberately aged with scratches, blemishes, and off-focus photography, so it is not the best test of presentation. The color footage looks good, although white speckles appear throughout. The heavy grain of these shots is very much in keeping with the Allen aesthetic. Bonus content is limited to an isolated score/effects track and a trailer. Get it on Screen Archives Entertainment.com here.