Sunday, September 25, 2011

Zelig (1983)

Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.

So it turns out that Woody Allen, a man of eclectic tastes and a notably silly sense of humor, made one of the most high-concept movies I've ever heard of. In Zelig, a mockumentary of the fad-crazy 1920's, Allen portrays Leonard Zelig, a man so desperate to fit in that he's developed the talent to physically and mentally alter himself to look and act like those nearest to him. He can become Chinese or African-American, he can suddenly gain knowledge of medical science or the French language. He is put under the care of lady (!) psychiatrist Dr Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), who seeks to study and eventually cure him of his personality-less existence. The film inserts Allen into old newsreels and photos, as Zelig interacts with various historical figures, while talking heads of scientists and old people who "knew" him speak to the camera in the present-day 80's.

First of all, this film's technical achievements cannot be praised enough. Allen is so seamlessly woven into old film and photos, while incorporating some impressive make-up effects, that I honestly had trouble recognizing what was actual historical footage and what was re-enacted at some points. The new scenes with Zelig and Eudora are filmed in an old-timey style, using old cameras and beat-up film stock to achieve the appropriate look. On paper it sounds sort of crazy and weird but in practice the whole thing does really work quite well. It's rife with goofy sight gags (Allen and Farrow waving vigorously at one another at a giant Nazi rally), era-specific jokes (news headline reading "Chameleon Cured by Woman Doctor. She's Pretty, Too!"), and a lot of wacky cameos, from Charlie Chaplin to the Pope.

I enjoyed Zelig immensely almost despite of myself. It is highly imaginative and zany in its parody of the time period. Allen gets to don numerous disguises while Farrow is her adorable, nerdy self. It's the kind of premise that could have been alienating or one-note, but he twists the concept around several times and keeps the writing sharp enough to entertain consistently. The biggest problem is that even at a trim 79 minutes, the film drags. Apparently the initial cut was only 45 minutes, and Allen was forced to stretch it out to make it feature-length. There isn't quite enough plot here to make it really work as a full movie, but it's such an inventive and fun story that I still came out smiling.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: I was definitely put in mind of Allen's more recent love letter to the 1920's, Midnight in Paris. Both feature F Scott Fitzgerald! Add Bullets Over Broadway for a triple feature.

10 comments:

  1. Alex, Yes this is quite the curious piece from Allen. I've seen most of his films prior to the 2000's and there isn't another one like this. His output in the 80's is not his best, but there are several interesting films, like Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters and the amazing Stardust Memories.

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  2. I've been wanting to see this one for quite some time now (10 years) but your review has reminded me to get on to it immediately (or after my current run of cold war espionage films perhaps) as most importantly Leah would like it.

    Interesting about the initial 45 minute cut as i often get the feeling that some of his more recent stuff could be heavily editted.

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. (This COMMENT is a replacement - an edit - of the original deleted one.)

    "I enjoyed...almost despite myself". Yes. Same here. Curious, because I've called myself a big Woody Allen fan.

    I think this is a Study, not just a Film Watching, experience. It's almost a chore, or contains some duty element to it. "Don't look away - don't skip or skim - watch it - study it!"

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