Back in 1973 when Paper Moon came out, director Peter Bogdanovich was Hollywood’s Golden Boy — fresh from the double-punch success of The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc?. Paper Moon would continue that winning streak, but it would be the last of his films to get by on a free pass. (Daisy Miller would be met with indifference, and At Long Last Love would — unfairly, I think — become the Gigli of its day.)
That said, Paper Moon is a movie that doesn’t need a free pass. Set in 1935 and shot in luminous black-and-white, it was — and is — a film of great charm, creating an impeccable period feeling, and containing exceptional performances (Ryan O’Neal’s real-life daughter, Tatum, won a Supporting Actress Oscar for her role — making her, at 10, the youngest person ever to scarf the statuette).
The film is the beguiling story of a con man, Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal), who specializes in selling Bibles to widows and widowers. He searches the obituaries for his victims, then comes calling with “personalized” Bibles supposedly ordered by the deceased — with balances due, of course. As cons go, it’s small potatoes — until he finds himself saddled with 10-year-old Addie (Tatum), who may or may not be his daughter, but who most certainly is a natural con artist .. and a considerably more ambitious one than Moses.
Using this setup, the film follows with great assurance the pair’s adventures and encounters through the Depression-era Midwest. Tatum O’Neal is wonderful (and wonderfully appealing) as the foul-mouthed (by PG standards) Addie, suggesting a great — and believable — vulnerability beneath her seemingly cynical surface without ever once becoming saccharine. No one who grumbles, “She must have a bladder the size of peanut,” about Moses’s short-lived, constantly bathroom-break-oriented girlfriend (Madeline Kahn) is in danger of that.
This is a must-see movie from a major figure in 1970s filmmaking.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke