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Peter Bogdanovich’s fourth feature film, Paper Moon, is a road movie at its core, yet it excels in showcasing so many different genres. Following the footsteps of his previous works (Targets, The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc?) Bogdanovich managed to create a homage to various genres, filmmaking styles and classics. Based on Joe David Brown’s 1971 novel Addie Pray, the film concerns conman Moze Pray (Ryan O’Neal), who agrees to deliver the recently orphaned nine-year-old Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal) to her aunt’s home in St Joseph, Missouri during the Great Depression. Moze is rumoured by the neighbours to be Addie’s birth father, yet this is never addressed or explained further, only benefiting the final picture by avoiding any sentimental family reunion.
After spending $200 of Addie’s money, Moze lets her travel with him until he recoups the cash from a string of quick-change scams. Following their initial resentment and disrespect for each other, the unlikely duo eventually hit it off, becoming a formidable scam team in the process. In fact, Addie proves to be even more talented than Moze. Bogdanovich uses a classic road movie structure in establishing the pair’s relationship, their view on life and their eventual mutual respect. It’s no secret that road movies often focus on the main character’s existential crises and their reflections on their life as they travel. However, Paper Moon excels in creating a unique tone by incorporating stylistic and narrative elements of several other genres. Rather than showing the dark side of the Great Depression with characters pondering their penniless and hopeless situation, Bogdanovich creates a light-hearted tone that balances poignancy and melancholy.
Filmed in black and white – an unusual choice in the early 1970s – the film pays homage to a range of classic Hollywood comedies, most notably the screwball genre and Chaplin. Not only does Tatum O’Neal’s Addy look and dress like the child from Chaplin’s seminal The Kid, but the relationship with Moze is also very similar to the one between Chaplin’s Tramp and the Kid. These similarities are then laced with a set of slapstick comedy moments that could have easily come from the silent comedies of the 1920s. Screwball comedy moments include Moze stealing a bootlegger’s whiskey crate and selling it back to him, only to realise his twin brother is the local sheriff, and a jealous Addy sabotaging Moze’s relationship with a woman. Ryan and Tatum O’Neal’s exquisite comedy timing and natural ease shine on screen as two lovable outlaws – we are even treated to a car chase that feels like it has come from a Buster Keaton sketch.
However, for all its evident Americana, the narrative is heavily influenced by a series of European new wave films, with its character-driven plot, realistic atmosphere, close attention to social context and semi-open ending. There is a clear homage to films like Fellini’s La Strada as Bogdanovich has Moze and Addy stop at a local carnival where Addy has her photograph taken sitting on a crescent moon. Paper Moon is one of cinema’s timeless classics and possibly one of Bogdanovich’s finest movies. Here his dutiful homage to classic films is also a fresh, creative and utterly unique take on a heavily used genre. Paper Moon is a heartwarming, charming, deeply poignant and melancholic mixture that is a love letter to the cinema and one hell of a beautiful ride.