Woody Allen is in top form, while taking a substantially different track than his kooky comedy M.O.
Zelig is presented as a documentary detailing the life of one Leonard Zelig (Allen), a 1920s cause celebre who has the unique power of automatically changing his appearance to look like those around him. Black, Indian, obese, Chinese, Scottish -- you name it, Zelig becomes it.
The notion is absurd, of course, and the consternation this "human chameleon" causes to the medical community and America at large is dazzlingly comic. One diagnosis he is given by a doctor: "I'm sure it's something he picked up from eating Mexican food." A "chameleon" dance craze is launched. Zelig songs are written, including "You May Be Six People But I Love You."
The film is full of deadpan hilarity, as narrated by the ever-serious Patrick Horgan, never hinting for a moment that we should take Zelig's story any way other than deadly serious. Horgan's delivery of information, such as the sole advice Zelig's father gave him on his deathbed ("Save string."), is absolutely perfect, as if we're being treated to Citizen Kane.
Allen does the mockumentary right. The present day is shot as interviews with real people playing themselves, only remembering a false past. The archival footage is either real or made to look like it's old -- or notably with Allen inserted into historical footage, batting in the Yankees lineup after Babe Ruth or meeting with presidents. It's worth noting that Woody did this 11 years before Forrest Gump earned kudos for the exact same trick.
Zelig is far better than the mockumentary Allen would produce decades later, Sweet and Lowdown, which doesn't make even a half-hearted effort to be realistic or funny. It's imperfect -- notably the relationship between Zelig and his psychiatrist (Mia Farrow), but that's almost beside the point. Zelig is absurd and fascinating at the same time.