Zelig was an unfortunate boy; bullied by anti-Semites – his parents never took his side. On his deathbed, his father tells him life is desperate, meaningless; the only thing to do is tell it like it is. Maybe Zelig’s life fulfills his father’s command – he has a strange ability to imitate whoever is around him. He does not merely make images of things – he makes images of people.
Humorless doctors want to diagnose him with disease upon disease; others try to twist him this way or that. He survives. Some idiot calls him a human chameleon. This strange literalness which pervades the comedy does point to something: Which human being is Zelig? How does one recognize him? He is a Democrat to the poor, a Republican to the rich. Zelig tried to be a Yankee one day, which got him arrested…
The doctor who decides to make her career out of him does not realize she is turning therapy into a Hollywood movie. One wonders what other therapists do. Anyway, she happily moves from her professional failures to a Broadway show, where she realizes she should imitate Zelig. This causes Zelig to be no one… Now, she can put him in a trance, to try to find out the truth about him.
Newly honest, Zelig criticizes all sorts of things about her, then states his erotic arousal. In his private life, he has opinions about all things in the world. In public, he is extraordinarily eager to respect the public. When he starts publicly voicing his private opinions, he starts attacking people. Soon, he tells kids in schools to be themselves – it’s the American way, they can take it from him. There’s your story about the problem of assimilation for Jews.
Zelig first became famous for imitating people. He ends up having his picture taken with all the famous people in America. He is imitating the American dream. This all ends when his sister, eager to exploit his fame for money, ends up dead in a romantic triangle.
Zelig’s second fame is his fame for not imitating people. Having disappeared, he reappears by the side of the Pope during Easter celebrations. Who is loved more than Christ? Maybe he hoped being Pope meant everyone would like him. The most public is the best loved. But the doctor woman cures him. Now he is famous for imitating a moral American. Again, he has his picture taken with all the famous Americans. On the eve of their marriage, his many private crimes, polygamy & property crimes mostly, catch up with him. His terrible immorality is enough to doom him, whatever his apologies. About to stand trial, he disappears again. He then tries Nazism.
A very funny story about the dubious sympathy between comic poet & democracy