Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Woody Allen, Mia Farrow
Director:  Woody Allen
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  79 Minutes
Release Date:  November 6, 2001

“I have to get back to town…I teach a course at the Psychiatric Institute on masturbation.”

“Guilt related?”

“No, not guilt related.  I teach advanced.”

Film ****

Long before Forrest Gump chatted with presidents, there was Leonard Zelig, sitting behind Adolph Hitler at a Nazi rally waving to his girlfriend.  In Woody Allen’s brilliant faux-documentary Zelig, we learn the complicated and fascinatingly funny story of how he got there.

Zelig (Allen), in the documentary, was a figure in the 1920s who was once as famous as Charles Lindbergh, but has since faded from the public memory.  He came into notoriety for an unusual condition, which allowed him to physically change his appearance to match those around him.  He could become Italian, Oriental, even African American, and blend in with whatever crowd he happened to be a part of.

Dubbed “the human chameleon”, Zelig’s condition frustrates top medical doctors, but wins the interest of a young lady psychiatrist, Eudora Fletcher (Farrow), who believes that his strange physical ability stems from a mental problem.  She believes that Leonard’s deep-rooted desire to be accepted by his peers has led his body to develop this changeling capability as a defense mechanism.

Playing out like a real documentary, the audience follows Dr. Fletcher during her lengthy “white room” sessions with Zelig.  Two things begin to occur:  she helps Leonard find comfort within his own real personality, and he in turn begins to fall in love with her.

His celebrity in the 20s leads to recordings, jokes, and dance crazes, but like most persons in the spotlight, things begin to go sour for Leonard just as he should be at his happiest.  People duped by his former disorder are coming out in droves against him.  Lawsuits and infamy mount against him.  “I especially want to apologize to the Trochman family in Detroit,” he states publicly.  “I’ve never delivered a baby before, and I just though ice tongs were the way to do it.”  Soon his newfound freedom to be himself starts to give way to his old desire to be liked at all costs.  

The strange turn of events does in fact lead to Nazi Germany…and I would be a fiend if I told you more than that.  The story is warm, funny, and endlessly imaginative, with limitless opportunity for gags and gentle but cynical digs at the culture of celebrity, medicine, and even fascism (who better than a human chameleon to be absorbed by a movement of non-thinking robot-like warriors?).

All of this is presented in a film with masterful technique, creating the look and feel of a documentary with authentic 20s styled film footage.  “We got old lenses from the 1920s, old cameras and old sound equipment,” Allen has explained.  “We tried to get all of that kind of stuff that still existed…And we filmed it in exactly the kind of lighting they would have had at the time.” 

Of course, one must also consider the historical clips that, with the insertion of Allen, brings Zelig into the screen with Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, F. Scott Fitzgerald and more.  The results are convincing, and serve the narrative beautifully.  I’ve known people to watch Zelig for the first time not knowing what it was, and who were convinced they were watching a very real, if very strange, documentary.

Allen’s wit is at its sharpest as writer and director.  He explores his comic possibilities ad infinitum, and the result is one of his funniest pure comedies.  As Zelig himself states, “It just goes to show there’s no telling what you can do when you’re a raving psychotic!”

BONUS TRIVIA:  Allen filmed this movie and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy simultaneously.

Video ***

This is a quality anamorphic transfer from MGM, and having owned a couple of VHS copies of this film in my life, I can say that Zelig looks better than ever.  Keeping in mind that much of the “old” footage is purposely scratched and scarred and with occasional jump cuts to mimic 60 year old film stock, concentrate instead on some of the brief segments of modern photography that show good natural coloring and clean, crisp lines with good detail.  Enjoy also the contrast without undue grain brought about in the black and white photography.  Master cinematographer Gordon Willis seemed to have had much fun with this movie, but his brilliance shows through the humor.

Audio **

All Woody Allen films have mono soundtracks per his direction, and as with most of the DVD releases of them, this is a perfectly decent and serviceable if unspectacular audio offering.

Features *

Only a trailer.


Zelig is a supremely comic tour-de-force that masquerades as the documentary of a man, who, “wanting to be liked, he distorted himself beyond all measure”.  This is one of Woody’s funniest and most technically brilliant offerings, and is one that even non-fans are bound to find hilariously entertaining.