Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) is a figure from history well nigh forgotten nowadays, which is odd because during the nineteen-twenties and -thirties he was one of the most famous men in America, never mind the world. His first mention in anyone's record was in the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald who attended a dinner engagement and met Zelig, who was there under an assumed name, claiming to be a Republican and mingling effortlessly with the upper classes. However, when Fitzgerald saw him later that evening, he was surprised to hear his accent had changed and he was claiming to be a Democrat when speaking to the staff at the mansion. And this was Zelig's talent, which quickly became a curse: he would change not only his demeanour but his appearance as well, all for the sake of fitting in.
When making a mockumentary, it seems as if it's much easier to film one in a contemporary setting than set one in the past, as the tricks tend to show. Not so with writer and director Allen's Zelig, which although it took the longest time to make than most of Allen's films, is, if nothing else, a brilliant technical exercise as the star is seamlessly integrated into grainy, black and white stock footage - the special effects are nothing short of brilliant. And it's appropriate that they are, because if you were not paying attention, or stumbled on this movie while channel hopping one night and didn't immediately realise that it was all a joke, you could well be fooled into thinking the story of this "human chameleon" was in fact true.
It's only the gags that mark it out a spoof, well, that and the ever-recognisable Allen, even under the makeup. Zelig was one of the last films for a while where he used the zany humour of his "early, funny ones", and he's confident in his material to make some truly ridiculous jokes, such as Zelig being subjected to medical tests that make his feet turn backwards, or during a demonstration standing next to a Scotsman who he now resembles, complete with kilt. Being an Allen opus, there is the usual preoccupation with psychiatry and therapy, and when Zelig becomes famous for his unwitting ability he comes under the scrutiny of the medical profession, including psychiatrist Dr Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) who takes a special interest in his case, believing his condition to be psychological instead of physical as the others think.
It's essentially the same joke repeated throughout its relatively short running time, but when presented with such flair it's hard to resist. Zelig, in his desire not to stand out from the crowd, takes the form of everyone he meets, from pretending to be a doctor with Fletcher to actually changing race, nationality or even weight. Ironically, this makes him incredibly well known throughout the world, and there's a vein of melancholy running through the tale where the main character is not suited to any situation purely because of his attempts to blend in. As scandals erupt around him, he panics and disappears, leading to the film's darkest humour when Zelig, a Jew, re-emerges as a member of the Nazi party in Germany - an ingenious visual gag sees him sitting behind Adolf Hitler at a fascist rally. If the overall effect is repetitive, there are enough good lines to carry it (Zelig in doctor disguise claiming to teach "advanced masturbation"), and it could not have been better presented. Music, which features some clever pastiche songs, by Dick Hyman.
American writer/director/actor and one of the most distinctive talents in American film-making over the last three decades. Allen's successful early career as a stand-up comedian led him to start his directing life with a series of madcap, scattershot comedies that included Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. 1975's Oscar-winning Annie Hall was his first attempt to weave drama and comedy together, while 1979's Manhattan is considered by many critics to be Allen's masterpiece.
The 90s saw Allen keep up his one-film-a-year work-rate, the most notable being the fraught Husbands and Wives, gangster period piece Bullets Over Broadway, the savagely funny Deconstructing Harry and the under-rated Sweet and Lowdown. After a run of slight, average comedies, Allen returned to more ambitious territory with the split-story Melinda and Melinda, the dark London-set drama Match Point, romantic drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, one of many of his films which won acting Oscars, and the unexpected late-on hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. In any case, he remains an intelligent, always entertaining film-maker with an amazing back catalogue.