“Paper Moon” – Classic Film Reviews #28

Paper Moon

“Paper Moon” was directed by Peter Bogdanovich and released in 1973. Set in the post-Great Depression 1930s, it starred Ryan O’Neal as conman Moses Pray, who must bring a young mischievous girl named Addie (played by O’Neal’s real-life daughter Tatum) to her aunt’s home after her mother’s death. The unlikely pair develop a close bond along their journey, bringing the best and worst out of each other.

If executed differently, “Paper Moon” could be another generic road trip movie, but Bogdanovich’s direction and world-building make this film the classic that it is. The film feels straight out of the time period it depicts, with gorgeous black-and-white photography, 1930s jazz, and old-timey characters. At the same time, Bogdanovich had the necessary restraint. He didn’t have all the characters sound like bootleg Humphrey Bogarts or use a 4:3 aspect ratio. There’s a perfect balance between all the world-building mechanics, creating an environment the audience is absolutely immersed in and excited to watch the characters experience.

Paper Moon Ryan O'Neal Tatum O'Neal

Speaking of which, the two leads are masterfully characterized and performed. Each gains something from the other. Addie gains a father figure and independence, while Moses learns to be a better conman from the inexperienced yet sly Addie. Watching the two of them scam widows and exchange snappy insults is a lot more endearing and heartwarming than one would expect.

Key to the pair’s warm yet unstable chemistry are the performances by the O’Neals (who get along far better in-character than they do in real life). Ryan O’Neal is excellent at making this sleazy and manipulative character not only sympathetic, but pitiful. He may not be the greatest thespian, but he understands subtlety and how to bring the best out of his limited talents. Tatum is even better in her feature film (and Oscar-winning) debut as Addie. Normally child actors demolish a film to atoms, but Tatum defies this heavily established law of cinema. She portrays Addie with plenty of attitude, wit, and gumption without getting quirky, irritating, or — God forbid — cutesy. She walks that fine line of still feeling like a real kid while being confident enough that the audience can buy her skills as a juvenile crook.

Paper Moon Ending

Although “Paper Moon” is an incredibly strong film, it does have a few semi-minor weaknesses. For one thing, the plot could’ve used a little more streamlining. I understand the narrative is supposed to follow the leads on a series of misadventures, but these segments are a little too independent from each other. Also — and this is probably a hot take — I don’t think the ending works as well as it should. On the page, it’s probably fine, but the execution was disappointing. The final scene is a little too cold and gives off the impression that Moses didn’t grow all that much from his bond with Addie. While the film never needed a sappy ending or a tearjerker finale, it should’ve ended with a louder bang.


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