This film, set in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, is an early example of the mockumentary genre and is in some ways Allen's most ambitious technical achievement. The character of Leonard Zelig, played by Allen, is a "human chameleon"; a strange disorder causes his persona to change to fit in with the people around him. A psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Mia Farrow), attempts to cure him, and the medical case becomes famous. Complications ensue, and to escape notoriety Zelig flees to Nazi Germany, where he is later found by Dr. Fletcher, who has fallen in love with him.
Seamlessly combining archival film with contemporary footage, Zelig offers prescient commentary on the events of the twentieth century and on Allen’s own public persona. Zelig pops up everywhere and oscillates between being an object of public adoration and of universal scorn; he anticipates the alienation of much of Allen's audience in the 1990s and beyond. Zelig takes on the coloration if not the full persona of whomever he is with, and this speaks to Allen’s fundamental identity problem. Is he the nebbishy borscht-belt comic of his origins? Is he the Bergman, Fellini, or Antonioni of his dreams? Is he an ersatz Chaplin? These questions are unresolved, and Zelig, tour-de-force that it is, remains a kind of mid-career confession of confusion.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights since 1980, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007, p. 34.