Zelig - Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes

Zelig Reviews

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Super Reviewer
January 4, 2010
A delightful, original and funny Woody Allen mockumentary that is most impressive due to Gordon Willis' spectacular cinematography and the technique employed to make it look like old film from the 1920s with even the actors inserted into real archival footage from back then.
Super Reviewer
½ June 1, 2014
This mockumentary about a human chameleon who is able to change race, appearance, and professional demeanor at will is rather clever with the "archive footage," the smoooth 'n smarmy radio-voiced "narrator," and the "cameo interviews" with actual famous literati, but the movie tips on the tightrope of Woody Allen's slapstick inanity and Woody Allen's in-depth human analysis without ever transcending to the latter.

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."
Super Reviewer
April 15, 2012
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.
Super Reviewer
½ November 15, 2011
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.
Super Reviewer
½ October 2, 2011
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.
Super Reviewer
May 5, 2007
One of my new favorite 2nd tier Allen films. An unusual, funny, charming and cute film that's a delight to watch.
Super Reviewer
January 18, 2011
Wonderfully engaging and absolutely hilarious mockumentary. A masterpiece of the genre!
Super Reviewer
½ July 28, 2010
Very cute and quaint. Funny, but not overdone, and highly unusual at that.
Super Reviewer
February 20, 2008
I love the mockumentary genre and Woody Allen does it better than anyone.
Super Reviewer
½ June 9, 2007
officially one of the most hilarious and FUN movies ever! if before i thought i loved woody allen, it does not even compare to how much i totally, totally idolize him now. this is the first mockumentary i've ever seen and allen pulls it off with extreme panache. i love his choices of music, always have. the dialogue crackles with one-liners and mia farrow fits perfectly with the 1920s surroundings. the idea is brilliant and omg woody allen should win every oscar he is nominated for because he is truly the greatest screenplayer to EVER live.
Super Reviewer
May 21, 2007
Another solid comedy by Woody Allen, this mockumentary about a man so bland he instantly takes on the characteristics of whoever he is with has some brilliant lines and is quite a witty social commentary.
Super Reviewer
May 13, 2007
A hilarious pseudo-documentary by Woody Allen. Charm, absurdity and pure joy from start to finish.
Super Reviewer
November 5, 2006
Not as good as I thought it would be. Great concept though.
Super Reviewer
September 24, 2006
One of my favorite Woody Allen films. Funny and fascinating.
Super Reviewer
½ November 4, 2011
Woodey Allen you are a genious.
Super Reviewer
July 27, 2010
It might be the only Woody Allen film that has a legitimantely great technical side to it, with the effects, sound, and cinematography all being really top notch stuff. It also did the whole mockumentary genre before 'This is Spinal Tap'; 'Zelig' is inventive and fun.
Super Reviewer
August 15, 2006
As hilarious as it is inventive, Zelig explores Woody Allen's creative landscape as a director in an exciting and very effective way. Seamlessly edited.
Super Reviewer
September 3, 2011
Mockumentary film written and directed by Woody Allen, and starring Allen and Mia Farrow. Allen plays Zelig, a curiously nondescript enigma who is discovered for his remarkable ability to transform himself to resemble anyone he's near.The film was shot almost entirely in the style of 1920s-style black-and-white film newsreels, which are seamlessly interwoven with stock footage from the era, including cleverly filmed re-enactments of historical events. Narration is likewise largely in newsreel style. While being mostly set in the 1920s, the storyline occasionally shifts to present day (1983) interviews, shot in color.Set in the 1920s and 1930s, the film focuses on Leonard Zelig, a nondescript man who has the ability to transform his appearance to that of the people who surround him. He is observed at a party by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who notices that while mingling with the guests, Zelig sings the praises of the affluent classes in a refined, snobbish accent, but while in the kitchen with the servants, he seethes with rage at the fat cats in a thick proletarian voice. He soon gains international fame as a "human chameleon".Very funny and innovative , this movie looks like the first Allen productions.
Super Reviewer
½ May 22, 2009
Such a wonderfully original film and yet totally Woody Allen. He creates a character called Leonard Zelig and we follow him through history. Brilliantly done, and with loads of humour - the short running time also stops it dragging. And you thought Zemeckis was the first to mess about with archive footage. Recommended.
Critique Threatt
Super Reviewer
April 13, 2010
Woody Allen's "Zelig" is basically a mockumentary based upon a fictional man who can morph into different races and personalities. Allen's picture is a masterpiece of blending real life actor's into old b&w archive footage, although on a story level "Zelig" didn't really caught my eye. Allen tries to tell too many stories and adds his trademark humour into the mix leaving me feel a little distracted. "Zelig" is good but please do not take this picture too seriously.
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