Although 1983’s Woody Allen flick Zelig often gets compared to 1994’s megahit Forrest Gump, I don’t think they have much to do with each other. Gump connects to Zelig due to technological issues. In Zelig, we occasionally see the title character played by Allen placed within historical footage of some sort; the movie integrated Zelig into newsreels and photos from time to time.
Of course, Gump did the same thing, though with much more sophisticated techniques. However, that’s where most of the similarities between the two end. Both are comedy fantasies about insignificant men who briefly semi-prominent in history, but Zelig is much more focused on the personality - or lack thereof - possessed by its main character.
Zelig concentrates on Leonard Zelig, a mystery man who continually shows up in unusual places in different guises. He’s found at Yankees training camp as he waits on deck to hit, and he’s seen playing trumpet in a jazz band peopled by black men. Zelig has a strange ability to blend in perfectly with those around him; while among heavy folks, he gains weight, and so forth.
After one incident, Zelig’s hospitalized at a mental ward, and Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) takes a particularly strong interest in the case. She finds the roots of his fantastic attempts to fit in with others and tries to treat Zelig, though complications arise when his half-sister Ruth (Mary Louise Wilson) takes custody of Leonard and uses him for profits. Eventually Dr. Fletcher reconnects with Zelig and resumes her treatment, with a variety of results, including a love affair between doctor and patient.
Whether one finds Zelig to be among the best Allen films, I find it difficult to argue that it isn’t one of his most inventive. The entire project uses a documentary style. We see modern interviews - mainly with folks who experienced the Zelig phenomenon - mixed with lots of “archival” footage of the man himself. The majority of the movie comes from the faked and/or altered historical material, which is accompanied by narration.
The integration of the work seems virtually seamless. Sure, some of the effects aren’t always top-notch; for example, the shot of Leonard mixed with the Yankees appears somewhat fake. However, I think the material flows pretty smoothly and holds up well after almost two decades. Allen kept the technical shenanigans simple. As such, Zelig’s film footage lacks the ambition of Gump - you’ll not see Leonard try to shake hands with a president - but it works better, for the characters mesh more cleanly.
As with Gump, some of Zelig’s effects feel like novelties, but as a whole, they blend neatly with the action. Early on, Zelig risks becoming a one-joke affair, as it looks like it’ll just be a series of gags in which we watch Leonard transmogrify into different types of people, and it also runs the danger of turning into little more than a parody of various fads from the 1920s.
However, the movie remains centered enough on its characters to keep it from collapsing into novelty status. Of course, this is an odd task, since Leonard’s main personality trait is that he doesn’t have one. Nonetheless, he seems interesting throughout the film, and it doesn’t hurt that Allen reserves some of his best material in years for the character. He tosses out some great jokes, and a scene in which Zelig’s hypnotized by Dr. Fletcher should merit classic status.
In a way, Zelig seems somewhat reminiscent of Allen’s 1969 flick Take the Money and Run due to its documentary style. However, Zelig sticks with the technique more consistently and feels like a more satisfying piece. Even more so than a classic like This Is Spinal Tap, one could easily believe that Zelig is a documentary if you don’t recognize the actors. Allen pulls off the enterprise with surprising believability; almost nothing would give the ruse away to the unenlightened.
Ultimately, Zelig stands as one of Woody Allen’s most creative and interesting films. It provides a sense of depth absent from his early slapstick works, but it also features a wonderful feeling of lightness and frivolity lacking in his more ponderous and pretentious works. Despite its brief running time, the premise occasional comes across as a little tedious, and the movie may have worked better as a shorter piece. Although it runs on a little too much at times, I still really enjoyed Zelig and think it’s one of Allen’s most satisfying and entertaining works.
Zelig appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Zelig was a very tough picture for me to rate due to the wide variety of intentional flaws it included. Overall, the image seemed satisfactory for what it attempted to be.
The majority of the movie offered black and white footage. This mixed actual material from the Twenties into which Allen and others were artificially placed with fake shots created explicitly for Zelig. To make the latter fit with the former, the new images were mucked up badly to make them look old. That they did well, as all the black and white footage looked atrocious. However, you’ll not hear a criticism from me about that; these shots were supposed to look terrible, and the DVD replicated them accurately.
Actually, the transfer might have suffered from additional flaws, but they wouldn’t be a problem since they’d blend neatly with the original material. The interview segments - the film’s only color segments - looked decent but bland. They seemed somewhat soft and fuzzy and lacked great definition. They showed flat and unexceptional colors, and they showed a mix of minor print flaws like grain, speckles and grit. Within the context of the film, I didn’t really mind the concerns. Frankly, if they’d looked pristine, the interview snippets would have stood out to strongly, which might take the viewer out of the story. As it stands, the picture of Zelig seemed to accurately represent the source material.
As with virtually all other Woody Allen films, Zelig offered only a monaural soundtrack. As with the movie’s image, this mix was also difficult to rate because of the intentionally problematic source material. Much of Zelig’s audio was supposed to come from the Twenties, so the filmmakers purposefully added varying amounts of crackling, distortion, hiss and noise. In addition, the “older” audio sounded very thin and trebly.
However, I won’t criticize the track for those flaws, as they were clearly intentional. The lines spoken by the narrator and by the interview subjects appeared nicely natural and distinct; for those scenes, I detected no problems related to intelligibility or edginess. No effects appeared during those segments, so all of those elements came in the “archival” shots. That meant they were intentionally poor. The music heard as part of the “documentary” sounded nicely bright and clean, as the score seemed vivid and lively. It showed only modest low-end, but the music appeared quite good for a monaural track. Ultimately, I thought the audio of Zelig worked just fine for the movie.
Apparently Woody Allen doesn’t care for DVD extras, which is why none of the DVDs for his films include many. That is also the case for Zelig. All we find are some fine production notes within the four-page booklet and the movie’s theatrical trailer.
Though Forrest Gump stole some of its thunder, Zelig remains one of the most creative and inventive films I’ve seen. Woody Allen creates a pretty solid little comedy that has a lot of fun with its subject and doesn’t take itself too seriously. The DVD provides purposefully flawed picture and sound that seemed more than acceptable for this movie. Unfortunately, as with virtually all Allen flicks, the package lacks significant extras, which seems like more of a shame in this case; such an innovative movie would really benefit from supplements. Nonetheless, Zelig stands as a very fun and compelling flick that should be enjoyed by all variety of comedy fans.
Note: Zelig can be purchased on its own or as part of the Woody Allen Collection 1982-1987. The latter also includes A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters and Radio Days. Unlike packages such as The Oliver Stone Collection or The New Stanley Kubrick Collection, 1982-1987 tosses in no exclusive extras, but its list price of $99.96 is about 17 percent off of the separate cost of all six movies. As such, it would be a nice bargain for anyone who wants all of the different films.