Zelig was an experiment upon Woodt Allens part in creating a documentary set around a fantastic, entirely fictional character. Allen was possibly inspired by the then recent Dead Men Dont Wear Plaid (1982), wherein director Carl Reiner composed a film based around inserting Steve Martin into clips from 1940s film noir thrillers. Allen had earlier composed another entire film by dubbing over footage from a Japanese spy thriller with Whats Up Tiger Lily? (1965), while his Take the Money and Run also posed at the documentary form. The move of inserting a fictional character into historical footage was later copied by the much more famous Forrest Gump (1994), although Zelig is much cleverer and more sophisticated with what it does.
The idea is something that would seem an artistic conceit in any less adept directors hands but in Woody Allens becomes a work of masterful satire. The narration wittily lampoons the mythologising sentiments of thirties documentaries, while clips from a film based on Zeligs life called The Changing Man do an hilarious job of mocking the sentimental frippery of the eras films. Zelig is a more freewheeling comedy in the style of Woody Allens earlier slapstick films of the 1970s and away from the more meaning-laden works that Allen was making in the 1980s. Allen never strays far from his familiar persona, but the satirical objects are painfully accurate. There are a number of priceless Allen-esque one-liners packed away during the very funny live-action therapy sessions with the psychologist played by Mia Farrow.
On a technical level, Zelig is exceptional. The makeups are brilliantly conducted Allen changes his features and race but still remains identifiably himself. Faked footage and real intermingle with flawless regard. The pseudo-documentary footage and stills are cleverly interwoven with the real, while Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow and others contemporary figures appear as themselves to reflect on Zeligs life. At times the mingling of fact and fiction and the wealth of detail afforded the fiction almost makes it seem as though a Leonard Zelig really did live.
Woody Allens other films of genre interest are: Play It Again Sam (1972), Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), Sleeper (1973), Love and Death (1975), A Midsummer Nights Sex Comedy (1982), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), New York Stories (1989), Alice (1990), Shadows and Fog (1992), Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Everyone Says I Love You (1996), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Match Point (2005), Scoop (2006), Midnight in Paris (2011), To Rome with Love (2012) and Magic in the Moonlight (2014).