Fictional documentary about the life of human chameleon Leonard Zelig, a man who becomes a celebrity in the 1920s due to his ability to look and act like whoever is around him. Clever editing places Zelig in real newsreel footage of Woodrow Wilson, Babe Ruth, and others. Written by
Scott Renshaw <email@example.com>
Was this the first "mockumentary"? I checked out IMDb and it predates Guest, Reiner and co.'s This Is Spinal Tap by a year. Not only was it a fake documentary, it sustained the format throughout, never once breaking into an enacted scene. Allen told his story, set in his favorite time period, The Roaring 20's, using special lenses to create the old style newsreels. Using photo stills, mixing real footage with his, and providing exposition via modern-day "historians" and aged characters, he gave this innovative film such an authenticity that if one didn't know any better, you would swear there had been an actual Leonard Zelig.
Allen plays Leonard, a man so devoid of identity, so eager to assimilate, that he literally takes on the appearance or, at least, the attributes of anyone he comes in contact with. Mia Farrow plays his psychiatrist, Dr. Eudora Fletcher, and taken in smaller doses, she actually is perfect in this role. There are a few moments when you get to see an extended dialogue between the two, most notably when her brother is filming "The White Room" sessions at her country estate. This is the only time that Allen's shtick gets to flex, as he cracks jokes about teaching a Masturbation class. Advanced. I also loved Zelig groaning about Eudora's terrible cooking under hypnosis. Eventually, Dr. Fletcher is able to cure him, and with his newfound personality, he and Eudora fall in love.
Allen also introduces the idea of Zelig's story being filmed as a movie, so he inter cuts some of the news sources with scenes from the film (very funny). The one thing that really stood out for me, though, was this revelation towards the end of the film. Woody as Leonard Zelig was smiling. A lot. It was kind of weird to see, but his happiness actually imbued the film with positive emotion and charmed the pants off me (not literally, of course) to such a degree that I will undoubtedly be repeating my viewing pleasure many more times.
I'll be honest. There were moments early on that I perhaps wondered if he was going to be able to sustain my interest. I thought he might be playing this conceit a little too long. What had, in the first 20 minutes, been enchanting and amusing seemed to dwindle in the middle of the film. Would he really succeed at telling an engaging story in this method? Well, I stuck with it and I'm glad I did. He layers so many meanings into his character's transformations, and all of his historians offer different interpretations. The importance of being yourself. How Zelig's journey was America's journey during the tumultuous and wild 20's. He also has a great running gag about Moby Dick that lampoons the Great American Novel.
Will Allen ever be this innovative and original again? Well, it appears he's making an attempt with his newest film, Melinda and Melinda, in which he tells the same story twice, with one tone being humorous, while the other is tragic. If nothing else, he at least continues to strive for an authentic voice in this littered landscape of movie franchises and ridiculously insulting comedies. Go Woody.
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