Movie Review: Paper Moon
Directors: Peter Bogdanovich
Reviewed: 30 July 2013
Paper Moon features a rather irredeemable scoundrel in its lead character, the lowdown con man Moses Pray (Ryan O'Neal) and unites him with the recently orphaned Addie (daughter Tatum O'Neal) who may or may not be his daughter but definitely is his burden, partner, and influencer in this marvelous little 1973 film from director Peter Bogdanovich. The director, having made The Last Picture Show, is no stranger to filming desolate landscapes in black and white, offering a harsh look at Depression-era Kansas and its denizens. However, the film's biggest coup may be its frazzled chemistry between its leads; contrary to the cliche of pairing a jerk with a young child with the child helping to reform the reprobate, Addie ensnares, enables, and embellishes Moses's spiral out of control as they run every sort of hustle and cheat imaginable from selling Bibles to recent widows, out-foxing a bootlegger, and using wordplay to catch clerks unaware of exactly what they are handing over to them. Mose offers to take the young Addie to St. Josephs, MO to reunite with her closest living relatives (mostly as a plan to make some money off of her and then ship her on the train), and along the way, the pair develop a brusque shorthand that never gets too emotional or cloying.
Chemistry is a difficult thing to quantify; pairing a real life father and daughter brings some of it to the table, but I do not want to undersell the delicate work done by both performers here. Ryan O'Neal's performance is very physical, full of blustery mannerisms and overly polite stammering. In the modern day version of this film, an actor like Paul Rudd or even George Clooney would do well to play his exasperation. Tatum O'Neal's performance is more tricky; Addie is more rascally, more ornery in a stubborn way. I kept thinking of her as Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird in her desire to be in on the tricks of the grown-ups, adventurous and friendly. There are some real consequences to their tomfoolery here, but Bogdanovich never betrays his light-hearted tone. Madeline Khan is fun in a supporting role, and the film lollygags and dawdles along, never in quite as much of a hurry as it should be, making the journey and burgeoning friendship between the two lead characters all the more enjoyable. A triumph of recreating the clothing, cars, restaurants, and radio programs of the era, Paper Moon is more than just that.
The film is simply charming and that goes a long way for me. I am glad that I caught up with it, though I must disagree with Tatum O'Neal's Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Hers is a lead performance all the way, but true to her character, the Supporting Oscar feels like she hustled something, and I like that. For a 70's film set in the 30's shot lovingly in black and white, Paper Moon captivates.