Paper Moon (1973)
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
January 20 at Videology, part of its Kids Club series
Pretty much every scene in this movie inverts audience expectations with beautiful, deadpan symmetry. Early in the film, the camera alights slowly but determinedly on the face of traveling con man Moses “Moze” Pray (Ryan O’Neal) as he watches an old paramour’s corpse being lowered into the ground. An old woman whispers in his ear, annoyingly, that he has the same jaw as the dead woman’s 9-year-old daughter Addie (Tatum O’Neal), and “if ever a child needed a friend...” He agrees to drive her to Missouri, but the purity of his intentions are never clarified—a lingering mystery that screenwriter Alvin Sargent tactically extorts for the rest of the film. Ryan's irreconcilable mixture of boyish good nature and chiseled blankness was played for serious in Love Story, but there’s scarce evidence it didn’t doom his overall career, especially after Barry Lyndon. It’s hard not to applaud his performance in Paper Moon; it’s also hard not to feel like you’re watching someone being ever-so-slightly used.
On the other hand, Addie, the straightman to Moze’s smooth-talking “bible salesman,” is foul-mouthed and flinty as they come, her stubborn frown becoming a repeated widescreen motif. Moze manages to get $200 (roughly $3,500 today!) from the guy whose brother drunkenly crashed his car into Addie’s mother’s; the child bullies him into agreeing to pay it back to her, but he counters that they’ll have to earn it together—and thus, a business partnership begins. As Moses and Addie move across the Midwest, they squabble over just-right period details that would never have turned up in an actual 30s movie: lazy cicadas in the afternoon, Addie keeping Moze up late with The Jack Benny Show at night. Slowly they grow to appreciate each other. Photographed in perfect proportion by Lazlo Kovacs, Paper Moon abounds less in the new vernaculars for narrative filmmaking opened up by Bogdanovich’s generation of directors than the chance to exercise studio-era restraint on scenes shot on location, whose moral dilemmas are further out to pasture than ever before.
Breezing from town to town, Moze and Addie rip off one widow and drugstore after another, before Moze tries his hand at bootlegging, aiming to sell whiskey back to a guy whose brother is the sheriff. (This would be the first time in the movie they exploit someone who’s not totally down on their luck.) Make no mistake: the movie is irresistible the first time you watch it. It relies just as much on emotional naivete as seen-it-all cynicism—which makes it a weird meta-picture in the (future) traditions of Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino. The O’Neals were a real life father-daughter pair, of course, so Paper Moon is just as much about venn-diagramming hucksterism and showbiz—the family biz—as it is a straight-up period piece. The con angle is an edgy flourish, but like everything good in Bogdanovich’s career, it can’t help but be constrained by the filmmaker’s holy obsequiousness to all things Hollywood—a place where, for instance, a talented actress like Tatum O’Neal has to grow up twice as fast as a regular kid.
Follow us on Twitter @LMagFilm