I'm not one for blanket political correctness, but if you're gonna use blackface and slant-eyed make-up, you've gotta say something narratively relevant and not just treat it as a gag. There's so much social and cultural critique to be mined for both smart comedy and introspective pathos: people's prejudices toward different races, the knowledge of one's own race as the Other, the oftentimes unquestioned authority of those in respected professions, et cetera.
The fictional Dr. Eudora Fletcher states that to the untrained observer, Zelig's faux-psychiatrist sounds realistic, but he's really just deploying cliched lingo. It would follow that Zelig adopts different stereotypical speech patterns for different races or classes, but all of this "research" is presented in silent "archive footage," not some tour de force bit of spoof acting like Robert Downey Jr.'s in "Tropic Thunder." Nothing changes within Woody or Zelig to actually BECOME or even inhabit another personality, which is sadly unsurprising since Woody Allen seems incapable of playing anyone other than Woody Allen. (And anyway, mimicking Dr. Fletcher is technically a plothole because Zelig's chameleonic power doesn't work with or on women.)
Without grounding in what it actually means to "pass" as a different race, class, or other distinction, this lightweight premise and execution is almost as insulting as Woody's blind man bit in "Hollywood Ending."
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.
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.