[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]
Though hardly perfect, Paper Moon is more satisfactory than What’s Up, Doc? because this time Peter Bogdanovich has found, or conjured up, a comparatively rich setting for his comparatively modest comic sense to work in. Paper Moon may not be funnier than its predecessor, but it has more feeling for people and places: the result is fewer jokes but better comedy. An elaborate, richly detailed sense of period (the 1930s) and a half-dozen good performances succeed in making this lightly picaresque tale of a con man’s adventures with a precociously shrewd little girl (and orphan) quite appealing. A good deal of the humor comes from various surprises and reversals in the relationship of man and child—with the question of whether he adopts her or adapts to her being a subject for debate as well as amusement. Ryan O’Neal and his daughter Tatum play the lead roles, with the chemistry of the performances enhanced considerably by Tatum’s possession of a screen presence that is more genuinely self-assured than her father’s. The elder O’Neal still does a decent job, and the film’s populace gains from the presence of Madeline Kahn as a stripper whose flamboyance is balanced precariously between pathos and the ridiculous, P.J. Johnson as the stripper’s stubbornly illusionless black maid, Burton Gilliam as a flashy provincial hotel clerk, and John Hillerman in a dual role as a sheriff who is both menacing and neighborly and as his brother, a sedentary sort who runs the local bootlegging business from a small hotel lobby. Hillerman is probably the most accomplished of the players here—Tatum’s effect has more to do with sheer uniqueness as a movie child, and Kahn’s tour de force ends up seeming a shade too calculated.
Bogdanovich, meanwhile, furthers his reputation as a knowing creator of entertaining films, but also increases his chances of being recognized chiefly (and merely) as a master of nostalgia. Paper Moon, through a title which the story did not have in its literary form, focuses attention once again on the lines of an old popular song. In What’s Up, Doc? Barbra Streisand sang “A kiss is still a kiss” and here “it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believed in me” takes on special significance through the title, the music and a photograph which the child gives the man near the end of the film. Bogdanovich has denied that he is merely making replicas of old movies, which seems true enough even with the references to John Ford that turn up in this film. But the loving recreation of 1930s fashions, artifacts, consumer goods, buildings, and popular entertainment becomes almost too delicious, and the result is something very close to pure nostalgia. The radios, cars, shops, pop bottles, comic books, etc., etc., almost seem to become ends in themselves and occasionally are very nearly on equal ground with the characters. The film’s people don’t just drink pop, they drink Nehi; they don’t just buy toothpaste, they buy Ipana toothpaste. This sort of exacting detail may be an evocation of an era, but it very nearly becomes a shopping tour into the past. Still, though the tone of this film is much sweeter than that of the director’s other pictures, it is very much to the credit of Bogdanovich and company that they have evoked enough of the black-and-white bleak plains realism of The Last Picture Show here to strengthen what might have been a saccharine movie even with Tatum O’Neal around to do an anti–Shirley Temple. In sum: a flavorsome period piece in a likeably comic mode. The profoundest thing about it may be its nostalgic surface, and yet it is charming in a way that no truly superficial or merely nostalgic film ever is.
Direction: Peter Bogdanovich. Screenplay: Alvin Sargent, after the novel Addie Pray by Joe David Brown. Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs. Production: Bogdanovich.
The Players: Ryan O’Neal, Tatum O’Neal, Madeline Kahn, John Hillerman.
Copyright © 1973 Peter Hogue