Who are you?
I wouldn’t be surprised to find Woody Allen going down in history as one of our most prolific filmmakers. Allen has amassed over 50 feature film directing credits and countless others as an actor or writer. Although his star has dulled a bit in the last few decades (especially due to personal troubles and sexual abuse allegations), the filmmaker who has created a movie a year for decades still churns out movie after movie after movie, often with big name talent in front of the camera.
Time traveling over thirty years into the past viewers will find Allen writing, directing, and starring in the documentary/mockumentary Zelig. The film tells the story of Leonard Zelig (Allen), a nondescript guy who has the uncanny ability to “morph” into the people he’s around. If Zelig is next to a black man or Asian woman, he adopts those physical traits. The film is set in the 1920s and 1930s, following Leonard’s story through newsreels and footage of the amazing “human chameleon” and his eventual romance with one of his doctors, Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow, The Purple Rose of Cairo).
I have a love/hate relationship with Woody Allen. As a teenager I was enamored with his early movies, finding them to be funny and witty. Love & Death, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, and the Oscar winning Annie Hall are personal favorites. In the early 1990s, my interest in Allen fell away, as I started to become bored by his movies, finding them lackluster and repetitive. Sadly, my interest never recovered and I haven’t seen a Woody Allen film in over a decade (more by chance than actual avoidance). It also doesn’t help that it can be hard to separate the dance from the dancer with all the allegations being thrown around about Allan’s personal life.
Zelig remains one of my least favorite of Woody’s cannon. It’s a movie that I tried to watch when I was in college and had a difficult time getting through. Watching it again for this review I was reminded of why I didn’t like it — the jokes, while sometimes amusing, repeat over and over again and the film never feels like a real Woody Allen film. It feels more like someone trying to create a Woody Allen impostor, and not doing a very good job of it. To put it more succinctly: I was bored.
The news footage/documentary style can be a real gutbuster when it’s really put to good use (This is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind come to mind). If nothing else, Allen’s technical skills here are amazing — the filmmaker used real footage and inserted himself into it, or created specific edits to make it look like Leonard Zelig was a part of real life history. The main problem with Zelig is that I never got the feeling that I really knew the main character of Leonard Zelig (although that may be the point of the film); Zelig himself is just a prop in the film, around to be laughed at as he tries to become everyone around him.
Woody Allen is fine as Leonard Zelig. The funniest moments — which become stale pretty fast – are when Zelig transforms into those around him. The make up effects are subtle but effective and Allen is able to thrown out a few one liners that land. Woody’s real life ex-wife Mia Farrow doesn’t make much of an impression as his love interest; Allen and Farrow have collaborated on many films, but this is one where the twosome never seem to click.
Zelig (Blu-ray) is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen in 1080p high definition. This MGM catalog title – released by Twilight Time in a limited issue of only 3,000 units – sports a very good transfer, especially considering you won’t really be able to tell most of the time. Zelig has been created to look like old news footage, so the inherent image quality doesn’t look great, though it’s not supposed to. Filmed in black and white, the image looks old and grainy most of the time, which works in its favor. The soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono in English. There isn’t a lot to report about this soundtrack – dialogue, music, and effects are all clearly recorded and defined. Also included on this disc are English subtitles.
Bonus features include an isolated score track and a theatrical trailer for the film.
Zelig is a technical marvel with a lackluster script. I liked the idea that Allen explored – a man who can become other men just by standing by them – but I just wasn’t engaged by Allen’s finished film. That being said, I concede this is a clever film that will certainly please certain fans of Woody’s early comedies.