I remember when I saw Zelig many decades ago, I thought it was clever but no more than a fair movie, and indeed below average compared to the other movies of Woody Allen’s career up to that point. My initial reaction was that it made use of a gimmick that was kind of fun and interesting, but would have been better suited to a short or to part of a movie. I was disappointed that the whole movie was in that style.
As time passed I grew to have a greater appreciation for the film. While I would still not put it at the very top of Allen’s films, it’s one of the half dozen or so I find myself thinking about most often. And I’m struck by how often I see someone described as a “Zelig” or “Zeliglike.” It’s one of the rare films that has become a part of the language, a reference point for the culturally literate.
Zelig’s chameleon tendencies are mostly played for laughs, and the film works on that level. (Allen was still at the peak of his comedic abilities then.) But there’s deeper stuff going on in that movie, psychological and sociological points about the motives for and consequences of conformity, hammered home especially in a scene more chilling than humorous that depicts Zelig being spotted in a crowd at a Fascist rally.
Man of the Century is a poor man’s Zelig. It’s what Zelig would be if Zelig indeed were all gimmick without the more profound, thought-provoking, sometimes darker themes that underlie it. (Though as far as that goes, Zelig is funnier as a simple comedy too.)
Not that Man of the Century purports to be more. It’s a lighthearted romp that lacks the ambition to be a Zelig.
But given its basic premise, its basic gimmick, it could have been more. And I found it frustrating and a little disappointing that it didn’t have that ambition.
The protagonist is a newspaper reporter in New York who lives his life under the delusion that he exists in a movie from the 1920s, or at least early in the sound era. (And I think you do have to say “a movie from the 1920s” rather than “the 1920s” to convey the clichéd manner in which he acts and talks.)
His peculiar worldview is reflected in countless ways, from his mode of dress to his old manual typewriter to his propensity to communicate via telegrams. But mostly it’s manifested in his speech pattern. Think Fast Talking High Trousers from Family Guy. How much you enjoy this movie is largely a matter of whether listening to a guy talk like that for an entire feature length movie amuses you or gets old quickly. My reaction was somewhere in between—I mostly got a kick out of it, but yeah, I don’t know that I needed a whole movie’s worth of such dialogue.
But like I say, nothing particularly thought-provoking is ever done with this premise. It barely explores even the most predictable angle, which would be the conflicts between his and other people’s realities, and how and whether he’s able to maintain his delusions and function in the world.
The reason being that there’s unrealistically little such conflict. To the viewer, he’s obviously insane, but to the other characters in the movie, he’s at most a little eccentric. His girlfriend—a decidedly modern woman who runs an art gallery—finds his excessive chivalry both refreshing and a frustrating impediment to her desire that they “get busy,” but otherwise she doesn’t seem to notice he’s a loon. Most of the other characters notice it even less. When we later meet his mother, she and the people in her household don’t notice his mental illness at all, because they seem to be living in that era just as much as he is.
Indeed, the movie itself gradually takes on the trappings of a film from seventy or eighty years ago, further obviating any potential conflict that would make it difficult for him to sustain his illusions. Besides the fact that the film’s in black and white, the way people respond to him and the way the various subplots develop feels at least as much like it would fit in an old movie like that as in something more contemporary.
So what started as a study of a single individual living anachronistically decades out of place, ends up closer to a spoof of movies of that earlier era.
But there’s just no meat here. It’s not Zelig. It’s not an Oliver Sacks story about a brain-damaged patient whose memories stopped years ago and is permanently convinced that that is the era in which he’s living.
Man of the Century is cute, it has its share of chuckles, and it has a certain charm, but it’s light as a feather.