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Zelig (1983)

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Average Rating: N/A
Critic Reviews: 2
Fresh: 2 | Rotten: 0

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Average Rating: 3.9/5
User Ratings: 17,761

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Movie Info

Leonard Zelig, the "human chameleon", is profiled in this mock-documentary. Director Woody Allen appears as Zelig in scenes that purport to be vintage newsreel clips of the 1920s and 1930s, but are actually clever recreations, "aged" and scratched-up Citizen Kane-style by special-effects maestros Joel Hynick, Stuart Robinson and R. Greenberg Associates. An appropriately pompous narrator details the life and times of Leonard Zelig, whose overwhelming desire for conformity is manifested in his

PG,

Comedy

Woody Allen

Nov 6, 2001

Warner Home Video

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All Critics (22) | Top Critics (3) | Fresh (21) | Rotten (0) | DVD (11)

Lampooning documentary tradition by structuring the entire film as a meticulously crafted bogus docu, Woody Allen tackles some serious stuff en route

July 7, 2010 Full Review Source: Variety
Variety
Top Critic IconTop Critic

The comedy tends to the smirk-inducing rather than the laugh-out-loud, and the second half wanders somewhat, but Zelig is a strong contender for Allen's most fascinating film.

June 24, 2006 Full Review Source: Time Out
Time Out
Top Critic IconTop Critic

A masterpiece: a brilliant, even passionate historical pastiche, a superbly pregnant meditation on American society and individuality, and an eerie fantasy that will live in your dreams.

December 22, 2011 Full Review Source: Guardian [UK]
Guardian [UK]

Woody Allen's Zelig (1983) perfected the fake documentary a year before This Is Spinal Tap.

September 8, 2007 Full Review Source: Combustible Celluloid
Combustible Celluloid

Hilarious Woody Allen vehicle, a mockumentary with special effects ahead of its time.

December 8, 2006
Dispatch-Tribune Newspapers

Allen is one of the most recognizable, and least protean, performers.... [P]erhaps ... someone else as Zelig ... could have got the idea across without the blandly explicit dialogue and brought more dimensions to the role, besides.

January 17, 2006 Full Review Source: Blogcritics.org
Blogcritics.org

Woody Allen's comedy about a self-effacing man, who swiftly changes identities is original, clever, droll, and extremely well shot by ace lenser Gordon Willis.

July 2, 2005 Full Review Source: EmanuelLevy.Com
EmanuelLevy.Com

Brilliant early film of the woodman shows his creative genius as a filmmaker.

July 31, 2004 | Comments (3)
Denton Record Chronicle (TX)

Mildly amusing one-joke move.

February 24, 2004 Full Review Source: Ozus' World Movie Reviews
Ozus' World Movie Reviews

...a fairly entertaining little movie...for a while, anyway.

July 25, 2003 Full Review Source: Reel Film Reviews
Reel Film Reviews

Clever, but a 20 minute idea stretched to feature length.

December 1, 2002 | Comments (4)
Mountain Xpress (Asheville, NC)

Absurd and fascinating at the same time.

October 14, 2001 Full Review Source: Filmcritic.com
Filmcritic.com

Audience Reviews for Zelig

Review coming soon.
August 20, 2013
spielberg00

Super Reviewer

This is Woody Allen's funny, offbeat, and really cleverly hilarious mockumentary about Leonard Zelig, the "human chameleon"- a man with a multiple personality disorder so bad, he compulsively transforms into anyone that he is near.

The bulk of the film is shot in the style of 1920s/30s newsreels, and follows Leonard through history as he does everything from show up to batting practive with Babe Ruth, appear at the Vatican with Pope Pius and stand behind Hitler at the Nuremberg Rally. Basically, this film pioneered the same concept and special effects later used to great effect and acclaim by Robert Zemeckis with Forrest Gump.

This film is a lot funnier, more clever, and more zany, though. Besides his antics with mimicking people and showing up at various historical events, Zelig becomes a celebrity in his own right, and, while being treated and cured by Dr. Eudora Fletcher, he falls in love.

This is a brisk, funny, very sweet, and terrific film. I loved the ideas and the execution. At a running time of 80 somehting minutes though, this feels really slight and the style seems to overrun the substance. The film does get slightly beneath the surface though, so it's not all fluff. It's not one of Woody's best, but I'd put it near the top of his B-Sides.
May 20, 2012
cosmo313
Chris Weber

Super Reviewer

My mind has now been blown by Woody Allen. I mean, I have always liked him. Yet, this film makes me feel as though I am only beginning to scratch the surface of Allen's creativity. The fact that this was made in the 80's only serves to impressive me even more. The special effects are incredibly well done and this film succeeded in looking like a collage of film stock from the 20's. The film may lose steam in the middle, but the impression is likely to stay with you forever. A wholly unique and mesmerizing experience.
November 15, 2011
axadntpron
Reid Volk

Super Reviewer

Without hesitation or exaggeration, Zelig is the most creative Woody Allen film I've ever seen. It's debatable whether this film was the first true mockumentary, but it certainly popularized it as a legitimate comedic narrative device (Christopher Guest certainly owes a debt to it). Not to mention, that, with fairly primitive bluescreen technology, Allen was able to achieve a seamless visual triumph of inserting Leonard Zelig into any timeframe, any historical photo a full 11 years before ILM achieved a similar feat with Forrest Gump. The attention to detail is staggering (apparently, Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis would not find similar cameras and lenses used in the 20s and 30s to shoot on, they would nick and scratch the film negatives to reproduce a vintage, "burn mark" on the film stock).

Allen plays Leonard, a man so devoid of identity, so eager to assimilate, that he literally takes on the appearance or, at least, the attributes of anyone he comes in contact with. Mia Farrow plays his psychiatrist, Dr. Eudora Fletcher, and taken in smaller doses, she actually is perfect in this role. There are a few moments when you get to see an extended dialogue between the two, most notably when her brother is filming "The White Room" sessions at her country estate. This is the only time that Allen's shtick gets to flex, as he cracks jokes about teaching a Masturbation class. Advanced. I also loved Zelig groaning about Eudora's terrible cooking under hypnosis. Eventually, Dr. Fletcher is able to cure him, and with his newfound personality, he and Eudora fall in love.

Allen also introduces the idea of Zelig's story being filmed as a movie, so he inter cuts some of the news sources with scenes from the film (very funny). There were moments early on that I perhaps wondered if he was going to be able to sustain my interest. I thought he might be playing this conceit a little too long. What had, in the first 20 minutes, been enchanting and amusing seemed to dwindle in the middle of the film. Would he really succeed at telling an engaging story in this method? Well, I stuck with it and I'm glad I did. He layers so many meanings into his character's transformations, and all of his historians offer different interpretations. The importance of being yourself. How Zelig's journey was America's journey during the tumultuous and wild 20's. He also has a great running gag about Moby Dick that lampoons the Great American Novel.

At one level, Zelig is a simple satire, a fake documentary about a made-up "human chameleon" celebrity of the 1920's. It's rich with typical Allen touches and lines. But at another, it is a serious examination of how we adulate then try to destroy celebrities in America. At yet another, it is an examination of the Jewish compulsion to assimilate into whatever society we happen to be in.

But there are even more layers to this film. Allen manages to be laugh out loud farcical through most of this movie, but in the way of all great screen comedians, injects pathos into the film when Zelig, about to be sentenced for multiple crimes committed when he was in his "chameleon states" disappears leaving his heartbroken fiancée/psychiatrist behind.

And at an even deeper level, it's a rejection of the modern tendency to have to understand what things mean, rather than just appreciating them. This latter bit is shown by an actor discussing his book, "Interpreting Zelig," immediately followed by the late (and brilliant) Susan Sontag, playing herself, disputing this while the subtitle identifying her shows her as the author of "Against Interpretation." Indeed any film that manages to have Dr. Bruno Bettleheim, Irving Howe, Saul Bellow and Sonntag playing in it, commenting on the fictional Zelig, is something that can appeal to many people in many ways.

Undoubtedly, this reflects the complex character of Zelig himself, who could be so many different things to so many different people. This complexity is, like it is for Zelig, both a curse and its redemption. Rather than just a silly little fake documentary or a complex dissertation on art and philosophy, it's both and neither.

All this creates a remarkably rich cinematic experience which is genuinely unique, even among Allen's several "mockumentaries" like "The Harvey Wallanger Story," "Take the Money and Run" and "Sweet and Lowdown." It pulls off a difficult feat: it revels in its themes and subtextual complexity, yet it doesn't take itself too seriously at the same time -- a rare comedy that's both funny and legitimately intellectual.
October 2, 2011
JonathanHutchings
Jonathan Hutchings

Super Reviewer

    1. Leonard Zelig: I have an interesting case. I'm treating two sets of Siamese twins with split personalities. I'm getting paid by eight people.
    – Submitted by Dan J (17 months ago)
View all quotes (1)

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