Using camera tricks that were remarkable in 1983 and are still remarkable (they’re often a lot more convincing than the similar tricks in Forrest Gump achieved with CGI), Woody Allen as nowhere man Leonard Zelig inserts himself into actual historical newsreels, and the rest of the film — a mockumentary purporting to tell the real-life story of Zelig the “human chameleon” who assumed the qualities of anyone nearby — has been aged and weathered to look as scratchy and doddering as the real archival footage. Mia Farrow is a psychiatrist who realizes that Zelig’s uncanny ability to mimic anyone is an adaptive mechanism, a way for Zelig to feel normal, secure, accepted. (The movie would have a double meaning if one sensed that part of it was about Allen’s own ambivalence about aping Ingmar Bergman, but he still had two more Bergman movies in him.)
This beautifully realized bit of flimflam was Allen’s most purely cinematic effort up to that time — imagine it done as a play (most other Woody films could transition easily to the stage); imagine it done as anything other than a mockumentary. The externalized narrative makes Zelig’s plight funny, the way the impersonal newsreel at the beginning of Citizen Kane is funny. The one flaw is Allen himself, who has a Chaplinesque pathos when Zelig is silent, but as soon as he opens his mouth he’s unquestionably modern. (Maybe that’s part of the alienation theme, though — maybe the idea here is that the Woody Allen character transplanted to the ’20s would try desperately to be like everyone else, unlike the modern Woody who stays himself despite his myriad neuroses.) The clips we see of the nonexistent Warner Brothers film The Changing Man, based on Zelig’s life, are particularly dead-on, as are the novelty Zelig-mania songs written for the film, which sound perfect for the period.