I want to be liked.
Woody Allen, as an institution (if that isn’t too vomit-inducing a term), is something special. There are Hitchcock movies. There were Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn movies. There were Frank Capra movies. The list could go on. There were people out there from the 1930’s through the 50’s that were creating the dvd box sets of the future. Now, and since 1966, there are Woody Allen movies. Though, interestingly, he is not tied to Mia Farrow in this institution in the way that Tracy/Hepburn were.
You might try to say that there are also Mel Brooks, Spielberg, and (soon) Christopher Nolan, but they aren’t the same. Brooks, for one, has twelve directing credits, though he comes the closest to approaching Allen’s uniformity. Allen has a jaw-dropping 47. (Hitch had a jaw-dislocating 67.) Spielberg, though as productive (and far more so if you include producer credits) as Allen, doesn’t have a consistent tone, voice, or look in any way–you could probably only get away with saying Spielberg’s films share the same spirit, but that’s pretty nebulous. Nolan, who is 42, has ten directing credits and I’ve seen seven of them and they’re all great. They aren’t as visually consistent as Hitchcock was, but I think, in time, he will be similarly regarded as purveying a kind of genre–Nolanist.
Allen is indisputably an institution. One film is comparable to another, but rarely would I suggest he’s made carbon copies–of the 16 I’ve seen, Manhattan (1979) and Husbands and Wives (1992) are the only ones that are frustratingly similar. The guy has written, directed, and produced them all and starred in quite a number of them. The credits are almost always done in exactly the same way. His voice, even when he’s not on screen, is obvious in all the characters. New York is the setting for probably the majority of his movies. Ten or fifteen years ago, if you asked ordinary people about his movies, they would have put them in the category of art house. I’m inclined to think they know better now.
Zelig (1983) follows the life of Leonard Zelig (Allen), who is “the ultimate conformist.” He molds his personality and even his physical appearance to those around him. He travels the world and gets into situations and scrapes of all sorts. Once he is found out, he becomes famous for his freakishness. But he has no personality of his own. Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Farrow) is a psychologist who tries to help Zelig, but it is difficult. Zelig’s half-sister takes custody of him and travels the world with Leonard as a kind of sideshow. Eventually, however, Zelig is brought back the US and treatment is successful. But trouble comes again and Zelig may not be able to stand it.
Zelig anticipates Midnight in Paris (2011) in a number of ways. The comedy isn’t as side-splitting as it is consistently good. That is, the range is limited, but always on the positive side. It also puts Allen in the 20’s and 30’s around the famous of that age. I might add, it does so in superior fashion than Forrest Gump (1994) did 11 years later. Though, obviously, it is slightly easier to add people to grainy footage than the cleaner film of the 60’s and 70’s. Oh look, there’s Hitler giving a speech and Zelig is there in his retinue.
Zelig is a mockumentary and one of the first full films devoted to the style. Allen’s dialogue is as crisp as ever and the stand-up style jokes are hilarious. He really made this movie, where Melinda and Melinda (2004) was something less than made. Again, the altered footage just shows that he spent some serious time in the production and editing. The performances too, are solid-to-good which is also pleasant to see.
Allen, as the actor, does rather well. There are times where he has to go through some serious confusion. We don’t get to see him play out as one of his alter-ethnicities, but that might be all for the best. Early on, the narrator says Zelig spoke to the party guests as a wealthy Boston Republican and then to the servants as a coarse man of the people, and I wondered what Allen’s British accent might sound like. I suspect something like a car wreck. Still, his acting is well within charted territory for him. You’ll be happy to know that Zelig is not played as so nervous one worries he may do his spine an injury. He’s much more sedate and sedated.
His support is what you might expect of a Woody Allen movie–just more pieces. Only in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) have I seen a movie where more than two or three characters get serious attention. Zelig really allows for only one. I’m not sure that’s a weakness so much as the way you make a story. Here, we only need Zelig and people reacting to Zelig.
Later this year, Allen has a film called Nero Fiddled coming out. I’m looking forward to it, but I’ve got my concerns. First, it stars Ellen Page, to which I respond with terrible glee. Second, it stars Jesse Eisenberg, to which I respond with extreme caution. Third, it stars Woody Allen, to which I respond with unutterable fear. The last movie Allen was in was Scoop (2006) and it was quite bad and Allen was very bad in it. So, I hope he’s still got it in him to do a non-caricature performance. We shall see.