‘Zelig’ Review: A Meaningless Nightmare of Suffering

Posted in The Screening Room by - March 05, 2016

 It’s no big secret that I’m not really a Woody Allen fan. To be fair, I haven’t watched that much of his work, but I’ve never been overly impressed. He was easily the weakest part of Casino Royale, and I think Antz is about the only thing I’ve seen him in that only made me cringe, just a little. Yet I say that not to condemn the man and his work, simply to note that I set the bar very low when I know he’s involved. Very, exceptionally low on the “comedy” scale.

So I hope that makes the following statement resonate a little more: I find virtually no redeeming worth in 1983’s Zelig, which is the trifecta of written, directed, and starring this little mouse of a man. The concept is pitch-room-simple: a quick mockumentary about a man in the ‘20s who turns himself into other people when in public. Why? Because it’s a defense mechanism for his social worries! Doctors wonder if it’s a physical or psychological malady, both sides making very public cases for their opinions supported by strange and “humorous” attempts at proving their hypotheses.

On paper, it’s a fine idea: you can explore mental illness, social anxiety, and the need for conformity all in one nice, obvious package. But it’s also terribly blunt, and not really all that funny. Zelig runs into a jazz band and suddenly he’s black. His need to be like others comes from a history of parental abuse and neglect. The doctors’ “tests” are thinly-veiled torture. Is any of that really comical? Maybe in the right hands, but with Allen, it’s just plain unsettling.

There’s also a subplot involving a Dr. Fletcher (played by Mia Farrow), the young psychiatrist who tries desperately to prove that Leo Zelig’s transformations are rooted in a mental and metaphysical reaction. At first, she’s just struggling against the more mainstream doctors of the time, but eventually (and spoilers, I guess, for a 30-year-old movie that’s not worth this warning) she starts to fall in love with her patient after some revealing bits of hypnosis. Is that meant to be charming? Because it’s honestly pretty disgusting. There’s nothing redeeming about Zelig, at this point, so why would we believe that she would start to love him, except for the fact that she’s the only woman present in the movie? It just makes your skin crawl…

Top all of this off with some really shoddy effects that make the “flashback” scenes painfully obvious as to their editing and use of recent film techniques, and none of it really comes together. The script is dry, the acting is boring, and it’s just not interesting to look at. Zelig really has nothing going for it. It’s not even painful enough to be worth subjecting someone else to!

It’s a really terrible way to kick off a month of movies that should be lighthearted fun, but Woody Allen’s Zelig just puts a bad taste in your mouth that never goes away. For me, I think I’m gonna get back to my real classics like Trollhunter and What We Do in the Shadows. For you, dear readers, please take my advice: give this one a wide breadth and a complete pass. You’re missing nothing here, honestly.

Final Verdict: Skip It

This post was written by
He is a Nebraska native and UNL Honors alum with an ever-relevant degree in English. When he isn’t working his day job or writing for Kulture Shocked, Ben spends his time as an independent game designer, seeking to publish his first board game. You can also find him modeling for art classes around Lincoln or online as Dlark17 on most major gaming platforms.
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