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Paper Moon, the most achingly funny film I've seen in ages

  • Dec 22, 2009
Pros: Story, acting (particularly the little O'Neal), camerawork and theme

Cons: Honestly nothing of note

The Bottom Line: In a small bit of hyperbole, it is a film so broadly, maturely funny, I don't think I'd want to have dinner with you if found little to laugh at.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie''s plot.

Literary history defines two kinds of fools: the wit fool and the natural fool. The wit fool tends to be the jester sort, charming, intelligent, sarcastic, practiced. The natural fool is a born storyteller whose humor comes from wisdom and a kind of storytelling tradition that cannot be learned. In a head-to-head, the natural fool will always win. More often than not, the two types of fool do not share stage or screen. Paper Moon has both and the humor they create together is often surprising and truly laugh out loud funny.

In 1930s Kansas, Addie Loggins, 9, stands graveside as her mother is buried. Counting the minister there are three other attendants. A dapper stranger stops by to pay what respects he can. Addie’s mother was, at the very least, a loose woman. Eager both to send the child to a relative and get rid of the sinful stain, they turn to the complete stranger, Moses Pray, to take Addie to Missouri where she supposedly has an aunt willing to take the girl in. He very reluctantly agrees.

Moses, a conman, decides to send Addie to Missouri by train, but before setting this in motion he commits a bit of blackmail. He goes to a grain operator and threatens to turn in the owner’s brother for driving the car that killed Addie’s mother. He scams $200. Addie eavesdrops on this and understands what this means to her. Moses spends the bulk of this cash. Not wanting to go to Missouri, she publically and loudly demands the cash since it is rightfully hers. This is Addie’s little bit of blackmail. He has little option but to take her along on until he can repay the little girl, or risked being exposed.

His main confidence game is a Depression era standard, the Bible scam (embossing a recently widowed woman’s name on a Bible he claims her recently dead husband ordered). Addie watches him do this a couple of times and jumps in on the act on her own. She is a natural con-girl and a very quick study. For about two months the pair earn several hundred dollars on half a dozen other common scams.

Addie is so good at planning and executing schemes that she perpetrates a very complex manipulative ballet. Moze had picked up a chiseling “exotic dancer,” Trixie Delight at a traveling carnival. Conning three adults, she is able to get Moze to drop Trixie without him realizing Addie had orchestrated the whole thing. From here the film returns to the two of them on the road taking more and more risky cons.

While this summary is lengthy, it does not reveal any spoilers.

Paper Moon is a caper movie that follows a common formula. A conman or something close winds up with a partner he didn’t want. They start out hating each other but become entwined enough that they have to start liking each other or kill each other: The 39 Steps, Snatch, the Ocean’s ## franchise, the full run of the series Moonlighting, and Oh Brother Where Art Thou (which has much more in common with Paper Moon than the caper facet) to name the ones that came quickest to mind.

Tatum O’Neal played Addie and won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1974 (the youngest recipient to date) even beating out her co-star Madeline Kahn who played Trixie. Her performance is one of the most memorable for a child I’ve ever seen. She is the natural fool of the film. It is rare to find a child, particularly in a comedy, that can hold her or his own with seasoned actors if not carry the bulk of the film. It is far more likely that the child will just come across as just a standard scamp than as a true partner to the adult(s). Yes, she is cute and charming, but here is a quick example of what I think illustrates her abilities best:

Moze: I got scruples too you know. Do you know what that is, scruples?
Addie: No, I don’t know what it is but if you’ve got them, I sure bet they belong to somebody else.

This exchange is cliché; it’s droll on paper. Ms. O’Neal delivers this line in a way that made me laugh out loud. This exchange also gives a taste of the natural fool winning over the wit fool.

Ryan O’Neal—Tatum’s father and co-star—plays his risk-taking fop perfectly. He stands toe to toe with his impish co-star, and is truly funny himself. After all the younger O’Neal couldn’t make the exchange above funny without the careful setup of the older O’Neal. Still, he understands that his primary job is not to get in her way.

Madeline Kahn plays the self-important glorified stripper well, but it is a bit of a stock character whose main job is to play the victim of Addie’s coup de grace. P. J. Johnson, Trixie’s luckless and unattractive attendant, I think upstages Ms. Kahn but more because her character is not as flat. Every other performance is solid. It’s like they are a perfect but small ensemble riding along with the two main characters.

Producer-Director Peter Bogdanovich adapted the film from the play Addie Pray by John David Brown. He opted to use an old style of filmmaking to fit the setting. The movie is set in Depression Era Kansas so he opted to film it in black and white with relatively static camera work focusing mainly on the characters spending decent amounts of time in tight close ups (deep focus cinematography). He also opted not to use ambient sound only. Since the film spends roughly 95% of its time in sparsely populated areas, the sound is often just wind. This has an odd effect of wrapping the comedy in something ominous, subtly reminding the audience of the setting’s desperate times.

Except for the very small issue with the weakness of Trixie’s character, I cannot point to anything else that would stop me from maximally recommending it for any and everyone.


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More Paper Moon reviews
review by . May 28, 2009
Adapted from the matchless novel "Addie Pray" by Joe David Brown, Paper Moon is set in the Midwest/dustbowl during the Great Depression/Roosevelt era.     One-of-a-kind directing by Peter Bogdanovich, beautiful black & white cinematography, a great musical score with snippets of old time radio shows like Fibber McGee & Molly, Jack Benny and a host of others.      Real-life father & daughter duo, Ryan & Tatum O'Neil team up in this gem of a …
review by . April 28, 2004
posted in Movie Hype
Adapted from the matchless novel "Addie Pray" by Joe David Brown, Paper Moon is set in the Midwest/dustbowl during the Great Depression/Roosevelt era. One-of-a-kind directing by Peter Bogdanovich, beautiful black & white cinematography, a great musical score with snippets of old time radio shows like Fibber McGee & Molly, Jack Benny and a host of others.Real-life father & daughter duo, Ryan & Tatum O'Neil team up in this gem of a movie. Ryan plays Moses Pray. A slick, sliver-tongued, gold toothed, …
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About this movie


Paper Moon is an American motion picture comedy that was released in 1973 and was directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

The screenplay was adapted from the novel Addie Pray by Joe David Brown, and the film was shot in black-and-white.

The film is set during the Great Depression in the U.S. state of Kansas and it starred the real life father and daughter pairing of Ryan and Tatum O'Neal, as on-screen father and daughter Moses and Addie.

In September 1974, a television series called Paper Moon, based on the film, premiered on the ABC television network. The television version of Paper Moon starred Jodie Foster as Addie and Christopher Connelly (who had played Ryan O'Neal's brother in the TV series Peyton Place) as Moses Pray. However, it was not a ratings success and it went off the air a few months after it debuted, in January 1975.

A sweet and subtle gem of a movie. Newly orphaned Addie (Tatum O'Neal) falls into the care of small-time con artist Moses Pray (Ryan O'Neal, Tatum's real-life father) and turns out to be better at grifting than he is. Set in Depression-era Kansas,Paper Moonis a miracle of unity. The set design and cinematography combine to give both the flavor of documentary photos and the visual quality of movies from the period, and every performance meshes with the overall tone of sincerity, earnest optimism, and creeping desperation. The rapport between Addie and Moses is phenomenal--and being father and daughter doesn't make that a ...

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Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Genre: Comedy
Release Date: May 9, 1973
MPAA Rating: PG
DVD Release Date: August 12, 2003
Runtime: 1hr 45min
Studio: Paramount Pictures
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