Woody Allen plays a human shapeshifter in Zelig

Woody Allen plays a human shapeshifter in Zelig

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Instead of pegging our picks to a new release, we’re running through the best movies of 1983.

Zelig (1983)

Woody Allen has such a clear, well-established onscreen persona that the idea of him playing a human chameleon seems at first like a ridiculous joke. How could the stammering, bespectacled, wisecracking New Yorker appear as anyone but Woody? Yet Leonard Zelig, the mild little shapeshifter Allen plays in Zelig, operates outside of the filmmaker’s usual range, which extends from manic goofball (in the “early, funny” movies) to relatively subdued neurotic (in his comedy-dramas). The subject of the film’s faux-documentary is so eager to fit in that he changes his speech, size, shape, even skin color to match whatever crowd that surrounds him—a condition Allen turns into a potent metaphor for social insecurity.

That’s not to say that Zelig lacks for ridiculous jokes—they’re just the good kind of ridiculous, the sort of one-liners Woody used to tell during the early, funny days. In particular, the narrator’s description of Zelig’s childhood offers a parade of bits that could have—and, given his penchant for recycling gags, may well have—appeared in Allen’s stand-up routines: When Leonard was bullied for being Jewish, his parents sided with the anti-Semites; his family was so noisy and argumentative that the bowling alley downstairs complained about the noise; and so on.

Amid the silliness, though, the movie makes a seamless transition from big laughs to big ideas; the recurring visuals of Allen in varying makeup and worked into old newsreel footage are sight gags with unifying bite. The documentary looks back on the efforts of a psychiatrist (because this is a Woody Allen movie), played by Mia Farrow (because this is a Woody Allen movie in the ’80s), to understand and cure Zelig of this rare disorder. When he pokes around in the character’s psyche, Allen touches upon both the malleability and consistency that make us human. Zelig develops his shapeshifting out of a desire to blend in, and he wants to blend in because of anxiety that his regular self isn’t smart or interesting enough to hack it in everyday life. 

So even if the Allen persona stays fairly consistent across movies, maybe Woody the filmmaker can relate to Zelig’s shifts. When the film was released in 1983, Allen had reached a low-ish ebb: 1980’s seriocomic Stardust Memories had not been well-received, and he followed a rare year off from releasing a new film with 1982’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, still one of his flimsiest pictures. Zelig, with its largely black-and-white, imitation-archives Gordon Willis cinematography and its mostly pre-WWII setting, kicked off a terrific run of movies that often indulged Allen’s competing senses of nostalgia and melancholy. Indeed, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, and The Purple Rose Of Cairo can be read as a trilogy that attempts to make sense of culture from the first half of the 20th century.

But even when Zelig feels lofty with big-picture ideas, Allen playfully deflates some of his own ambition by having experts (including Saul Bellow and Susan Sontag, among others) talk about the many absurd interpretations of Leonard Zelig seized upon by the era’s intellectuals. Allen’s delightfully uneasy relationship with his identity as an intellectual also comes through when Zelig begins to reveal his own personality, and provides a welcoming credo: “Though his taste is described by many as lowbrow,” the narrator reports, “it is his own.”

Availability: Zelig is available on DVD (packaged alone or with several of Woody’s other ’80s films); it can also be rented or purchased through VUDU or obtained through Netflix’s disc delivery service.

Filed Under: Film, 1983 Week

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