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Film / Zelig

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Zelig hanging out with Coolidge and Hoover.

A 1983 Woody Allen film, Zelig is a mockumentary set during the 1920s and '30s and centering around one Leonard Zelig (Allen), a "human chameleon" who shape-shifts to fit in with those around him, and his encounters with the celebrities of the day. Zelig ultimately comes into contact with Dr. Eudora Nesbitt Fletcher (Mia Farrow), who tries to cure him of his uncontrollable shapeshifting. Throughout, commentary on Zelig's life is provided by well-known public intellectuals.

See also Been There, Shaped History, for which the film is a ur-example.

Not to be confused with the Italian comedy show, which has the same title.

Provides examples of:

  • Achievements in Ignorance: Any accomplishment Zelig makes when posing as someone else. More often than not he completely fails, because, well, he's pretending to be an expert. However, late in the film, he convinces himself he's a pilot and manages to fly across the Atlantic... upside down.
    Zelig: But I've never flown before in my life, and it shows exactly what you can do, if you're a total psychotic!
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Invoked with The Changing Man, as Woody Allen's character is played by handsome Garrett M. Brown, Mia Farrow's by Marianne Tatum.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The fictional Zelig biography The Changing Man.
  • An Aesop: Don't change yourself to please others. Zelig calls it "being a lizard."
  • All Psychology Is Freudian: Kind of mocked in that when first receiving treatment, Zelig takes on the persona of a psychiatrist and makes comments that echo a Theme Park Version of Freud.
  • Amnesiac Dissonance: Zelig is ultimately confronted with various victims of his shapeshifting — women he impregnated, a guy he performed surgery on, etc. — none of which he remembers doing.
  • As Himself: Famous personalities comment on Zelig, such as Saul Bellow, Susan Sontag, and so on.
  • Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny!: The public in The Roaring '20s and The '30s... and now, according to the film.
  • Black Like Me: Zelig can alter his race. At one point it is mentioned that Adolf Hitler himself labeled Zelig a menace because of this. The KKK viewed him as a triple threat, since he was a Jew who could turn into a black or a Native American.
  • Blank Slate: Zelig starts out as this, having no real personality of his own outside of the various identities he uncontrollably adopts (and has no memory of afterward)
  • The Cameo: Mae Questel singing "Chameleon Days" in her classic Betty Boop style.
  • Celebrity Paradox: The movie does a good job of justifying why its audience would never have heard of Zelig by treating him as one of many fads of the 1920s and 1930s, forgotten when the public discovered something new of interest.
  • Commander Contrarian: Eudora's mother constantly refutes everything an interviewer assumes about Eudora and her family.
  • Direct Line to the Author: The film just assumes that Zelig is one of the many "Ripley's Believe It or Not!!"-type weirdos that lived and died in that time, and it's a documentary made with the information that survived until now.
  • Do You Want to Copulate?: During his sessions, a hypnotized Zelig asks Fletcher if she wants to have sex with him. Fletcher stares at the camera in shock and with some guilt.
  • Ear Worm: The song "Chameleon Days", dedicated to Zelig, becomes an In-Universe top dance sensation... for a little while, at least.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Zelig finally manages to get together with someone that can help him regain his sanity and dies (relatively) peacefully.
  • Easily Forgiven: Played straight and averted with Zelig. Zelig goes from monster to hero to monster to hero as the public is portrayed as extremely fickle.
  • Faux Symbolism: In-Universe, every group uses Zelig as a symbol for something. For example, the Socialists view Zelig as a creature that takes many forms, which is how big companies oppress the labor working class.
  • Feigning Intelligence: Zelig lacks any real knowledge about the jobs he faked having, but one of the side-effects of his chameleonic ability (also born out of the ignorance of those around him) was that he sounded knowledgeable.
  • Freudian Excuse: Invoked when Zelig claims Freud rejected his idea of expanding penis envy to men as well.
  • Gold Digger: Strongly hinted of Leta Fox. Outright invoked by his half-sister and her lover.
  • Hilariously Abusive Childhood: As recounted by Zelig under hypnosis, "My brother beat me. My sister beat my brother. My father beat my sister and my brother and me. My mother beat my father and my sister and me and my brother. The neighbors beat our family. The people down the block beat the neighbors and our family."
  • Historical Figures in Archival Media: This movie is a Mockumentary consisting primarily of the title character interacting with various historic events, in all cases inserting him into archival footage.
  • I Can't Believe a Guy Like You Would Notice Me: A mild example, but Eudora always thought of herself as average, and tells the interviewer she was surprised Zelig looked past her more attractive sister at her.
  • I Have This Friend: When Dr. Fletcher starts out trying to treat Zelig, he is unresponsive and takes on the persona of a psychiatrist. So, she pretends to be a patient asking about a problem of a "friend"- while she "admits" that she is describing herself, she's actually describing Zelig's own problems, which unsettle him enough to break down his persona.
  • Innocently Insensitive: Well, Zelig is hypnotized into being Brutally Honest. He goes on and on about Eudora being a Lethal Chef with pancakes.
  • Irony: Zelig died before he could finish reading Moby-Dick.
  • Kavorka Man: Zelig seduced numerous women. One of the complications that cause his eventual (and fatal) downfall is many of them coming out of the woodwork, with illegitimate children and all.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Pretty much, Zelig's character/Freudian Excuse is this trope taken up to eleven. Because of his desperate need to fit in, Zelig started out by pretending to have read Moby-Dick when he hadn't, and this spiraled into mirroring the professions and even appearances of those around him. Eudora notes than when Zelig was posing as a psychiatrist, he spouted nothing but nonsensical double talk that could fool a layman.
  • Master of Disguise: Zelig is somewhere between this and Involuntary Shapeshifting...
  • The Merch: Invoked In-Universe, as there were many many "Lenny the Lizard" merchandise, from board games to slippers.
  • Mistaken for Special Guest: Zelig's special capability to blend amongst other group and sound knowledgeable just enough means that he was in many historically important events because people just assumed that he belonged there.
  • Mockumentary: Probably Woody's most accurate, as it never breaks the illusion that it's a documentary.
  • "Mister Sandman" Sequence: "Keep Your Sunny Side Up" montage. Played straight as it is a Hope Spot, "then the roof fell in."
  • Painful Rhyme: Cole Porter tried to incorporate Leonard into the song "You're the Top", but couldn't find anything to rhyme with "Zelig".
  • Racist Grandma: An old lady talks about how moral America is, and how it's a pure society — then suggests people "lynch the little hebe!"
  • Retraux: Lots of (remarkably convincing) fake 1920s and '30s footage, made with actual equipment from the period.
  • Running Gag: Moby-Dick. Zelig's stressor (what initiated his psychological disorder) was him lying about having read the book, and he eventually died before he could finish reading it.
  • Seemingly Profound Fool: Zelig is somewhere between this figure, and a Know-Nothing Know-It-All. He is only a man suffering a really weird psychological disorder born out of an immense desire to belong somewhere but people either believed him to be knowledgeable because he was seemingly a member of whichever group he was blended in, or believe that his blending is some kind of grand design.
  • Shiksa Goddess: Dr. Fletcher is not gorgeous (she considers herself plain, while newspapers call her "pretty"), but this trope applies in that Zelig is Jewish (and lower class at that), while she is from a wealthy WASP background. invoked
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Kind of. While the Nazis are presented as a real threat, and ready to murder Zelig and Fletcher, the pair upset Adolf Hiter's plan to include a joke about Poland in his speech.
  • Took a Level in Jerkass: Zelig becomes one when he develops his own personality at first. Instead of being easily swayed, he's violently over-opinionated.