Both a wicked satire on Jewish assimilation and a genuine post-modern romp, "Zelig" finds Woody Allen in one of his weirder moods. It's high entertainment that successfully combines Allen's high-brow inclinations with his screwball verbal wit. Funny stuff--damn near deep, too.A mockumentary on the life and times of uber-nebbish Leonard Zelig (Allen--who else?), Zelig the movie takes a cockeyed look at the "melting pot" myth. Zelig, you see, is a human chameleon--he automatically assumes the physical and mental characteristics of whomever he happens to be standing next to. This uncanny ability quickly makes him famous, the subject of countless pop songs (but Cole Porter gives up when he can't rhyme "Zelig"...). It also brings him to the attention of a homely psychiatrist (Mia Farrow) who struggles to teach him how to mold his own identity. But Zelig just wants to fit in....
The film mixes archival footage, faked-up Pathe News reels, and earnest Walter Winchell-like voice-over narration to create a rich comic montage of Jazz Age America as it never was. In a technical stunt later popularized by Forrest Gump, Allen is spliced into existing footage of the rich and famous of the 1920's. It's done just well enough to be impressive--it must have taken ages to do all this editing--but it also looks fake enough to be funny. You don't really believe it for a minute--and that's why it works.
Allen's gift for the sizzling one-liner is put to good use throughout, but the comedy at times takes on a scattershot quality. Who else in 1983 thought Freudianism was a relevant target for satire? Allen also has trouble sustaining the tone; after the manic first half-hour, you can feel the air seeping out of the movie as Zelig devolves into romantic comedy. Even at a modest 79 minutes, the film feels a little too long, as if Allen had to struggle to push it into feature length.
But Zelig ultimately stays on track, and you really have to see the wonky climax, as Zelig's endlessly malleable personality leads him right into Nazism. Trust me, Woody Allen in an SS uniform is something to look forward to.This is Allen at what he does best: raising serious issues in an un-serious way. A vibrantly imaginative curiosity.