Zelig

by Damian Cannon

Technically accomplished but emotionally arid, Zelig purports to relate the true-life tale of a human cipher, Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen). Constructed from a mosaic of interview, newsreel and documentary footage, the bizarre existence of the "Human Chameleon" is laid bare for a contemporary audience. Back in the swinging 20s, an era of crazes, a familiar face (that of Zelig) seemed to pop up at all of the best parties, in the thick of the action. The curious thing is that he always appeared to be someone different, one moment a famous actor, the next a learned doctor and, still later, the son of a jazz musician. Eventually he was referred to a hospital where it became clear that he had no intrinsic personality, instead picking up his characteristics from the greatest nearby egos. Thus was born the legend of Zelig.

In the Manhattan hospital consultants are baffled by his unique affliction, with numerous explanations being hoisted aloft then replaced. The only decent fact is that Zelig is able to transform himself into a reasonable copy of those around him, altering both body and mannerism. The general public are fascinated by this outrageous phenomenon; songs, dances and ear-muffs are all named after the man with lizard-like abilities. Amidst this hullabaloo only a single figure, that of young Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), seems concerned with actually curing their sick patient. Extended study indicates that Zelig evolved his abilities from a young age, the result of constantly trying to fit in. Perhaps the key to his recovery lies here but, before further progress can be made, Zelig is taken away by his half-sister Ruth (Mary Louise Wilson) and her impresario boyfriend Martin Geist (Sol Lomita).

Exhibited as a circus freak, Zelig has his tortured, empty carcass hauled across the globe in pursuit of wealth for his "guardians". An extensive range of merchandise springs up around Zelig, stretching from a loose-limbed doll to the ever-popular Lizard board-game. At the centre of this commercial whirlwind Zelig becomes ever more defensive, although his actual personality is far too deeply submerged to give an indication of pain. Fortunately, the introduction of a cowardly matador into their cosy unit results in the release of long-suffering Zelig. The down-side is that he immediately disappears, absorbed into the flux of humanity flowing within Europe. Disappointing news for Dr. Fletcher, still hoping to cure him and make her professional name. Zelig, of course, turns up, but only in the most spectacular way.

The most obvious characteristic of Zelig is that it appears so absolutely convincing, integrating the blurred figure of Zelig into 20s media. At no time do any of the interweaved figures seem out of place, an observation which attests to the effort spent. However, the greatest trick with this type of film is not the special-effects but the ability to imbue these distant figures with emotions and feelings, making us care about them. Woody Allen partly succeeds in this, obliquely illustrating how Leonard Zelig gradually falls in love, changing irrevocably from reptilian to human. Amongst the flood of stock footage float personal moments, incidents which reveal far more than a run-in with Hitler. However, despite the numerous gags, one-liners and physical comedy (which are up to Allen's usual standard), Zelig fails to strike enough emotional chords. Everything else is up to scratch, especially the superb soundtrack and cinematography, but the overall feel is too distant, isolated in the manner of Leonard.

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