Leonard Zelig, the main man of Woody Allen’s inventive comedy, “Zelig,” has an identity problem--he doesn’t have one, at least not one he can call his own.
The obscure Zelig is, literally, a human chameleon, an inconsequential guy who becomes consequential by mirroring the people around him. Put Zelig next to a Republican and he eerily becomes an arch right-winger. Put him alongside Babe Ruth and he transforms into a New York Yankee. Put him near a black horn player and, yep, he turns into a too-cool jazz master.
The 1983 movie, screening Friday night as part of UC Irvine’s “Double Vision” series, is a thinking man’s hoot, especially if you rarely tire of watching Allen do his smart-neurotic thing. Not only did Allen write and direct “Zelig,” but he’s hardly ever off the screen as the title character.
Allen uses the trapping of a documentary to give “Zelig” a quasi-journalistic feel that is anchored in pure satire. As a narrator (Patrick Horgan) talks about the late 1920s, a time of “diverse heroes and madcap stunts,” we begin to learn of Zelig’s exploits. Pseudo-newsreels show him in Yankee uniform, playing hot licks in a black combo and hanging out with playwright Eugene O’Neill after performing as Pagliacci. People love him, and Zelig becomes an icon of the Roaring ‘20s.
Looking back, contemporary minds are asked to decipher “this curious little man” afflicted with a “unique medical disorder.” We see a host of impressive talking heads--Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow, to name a couple--discuss his significance.
A straight-faced Bellow tells the camera that Zelig’s story may have faded from the public’s collective memory, but it nonetheless “reflects the nature of our civilization.” The fickleness of celebrity and the hopelessness of individualism seem to be the most obvious of those reflections.
Allen then dives into the story, especially the personal side focusing on Zelig’s care under kindly psychiatrist Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow). Zelig becomes the epitome of an Allen comic archetype--the manic New Yorker trapped in unending psychoanalysis. Zelig does gain something from the experience: He falls in love with Eudora and becomes even more famous, all with attending problems.
Beyond the cleverness in Allen’s script, this is a film that’s wonderful to watch from a technical standpoint. The cinematography (Gordon Willis) and optical effects (Joel Hynick and Stuart Robinson) used to inject Allen’s Zelig into the original news footage is amazing. There’s a seamlessness to the process and the way Allen weaves those segments with the interviews and re-creations of Zelig’s life.
The essential joke at the heart of “Zelig” may be repeated over and over, but when the film is in step, it’s a captivating comic fable.
What: Woody Allen’s “Zelig.”
When: Friday, Feb. 7, at 7 and 9 p.m.
Where: UC Irvine’s Student Center Crystal Cove Auditorium.
Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and head south. Go east on Campus Drive and take Bridge Road into the campus.
Wherewithal: $2 and $4.
Where to Call: (714) 856-6379.