Zelig – review

Woody Allen's flawlessly realised fantasy about a 1920s man with "chameleon disorder" looks even more prescient and brilliant today

Released in 1983, Woody Allen's mockumentary drama Zelig was in some quarters regarded as a one-joke technical novelty. But in 2011, it looks like a masterpiece: a brilliant, even passionate historical pastiche, a superbly pregnant meditation on American society and individuality, and an eerie fantasy that will live in your dreams. Most unsettling, somehow, for me, is the still image of Allen reconstituted as a speakeasy gangster, the "tough hombre" remembered by an elderly waiter decades after the event.

Using spoof and real newsreel footage, deadpan modern-day talking-head interviews and some tremendous special effects that hold up triumphantly in this digital age, the movie tells the story of Leonard Zelig, the little 1920s Jewish guy with a "chameleon disorder" enabling him to resemble anyone in whose company he finds himself. Mia Farrow plays the sympathetic psychiatrist with whom he falls in love. Zelig becomes a popular celebrity-phenomenon, who becomes a villain and is then redeemed with some Lindberghian derring-do, piloting a plane to beat the Nazis. The interpretations of Zelig are playfully, pre-emptively rehearsed in the film itself: he is the assimilated Jew, he is melting-pot America, he is all of us, trying desperately hard to fit in.

But 28 years on, you can see more here. Zelig is the mass capitalist: to sell cars or movies, you have to intuit the masses' taste, to be like them, but also rise commandingly above the herd, like Hearst or Chaplin – both featured here. Zelig is a hero when he abandons his chameleonism, but a bigger hero when his disorder kicks back in, convincing him he can fly a plane. There is a kind of triumph in fitting in, in subsuming your identity. How incredible to see Saul Bellow (not exactly known for self-mocking comedy) talking about Zelig's career with a straight face; this movie, though, reminded me more of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. Allen's recent comedy Midnight in Paris was a very decent homage to the jazz age, but it's not in the same league as this outstanding film.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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