Mar 24 2010

Paper Moon

Many know by now that I love a good con film.  Additionally, traditionally I’ve been someone who enjoys something with a healthy dose of comedy, rather than a deeply depressing genre.  So when I view a film like Paper Moon, a comedy/drama about a confidence man and a girl who may or may not be his daughter, it’s generally not hard to predict how I will feel about it ahead of time.  I’m not very familiar with the films of Peter Bogdanovich, who directed this film, nor the work of Ryan O’Neal, who stars in it.  Nor had I seen anything with Tatum O’Neal, who I assume is generally categorized as a child star because of films like this one, which was her debut (or perhaps it’s the nepotism — working with her father in this film certainly must have helped).  But I am of course a fan of the genre, and the presence of Madeline Kahn didn’t hurt either.

My first surprise upon beginning the film was that it was in black in white.  Having been filmed in 1973 this was certainly a creative decision, and one that works well in the film, particularly because it gives the feel of watching a photograph from the setting (Depression era) come to life.  As with most films shot in black and white well beyond the black and white era, this one is beautiful.  When a cinematographer voluntarily chooses this medium, it’s usually because he knows it well enough to really showcase it.  Not only does this enhance the mood and period feel of the film, but it presents a beautiful range of tones and keeps the focus on the story by technically giving less distraction through color.

The story is not an unfamiliar one.  O’Neal plays a con man, Moses Pray, whose name both gives undue comfort to his victims while simultaneously sounding like the verb “prey” to the audience.  Upon visiting the burial ceremony of a former lover/prostitute, he ends up picking up the woman’s daughter, primarily with plans to use her to his benefit by claiming the woman’s life insurance.  As would be expected, she ends up being useful beyond just this simple con, and they grow from being mildly irritated with one another to something resembling a father/daughter relationship.  While this is formulaic, it goes in a few directions that are authentically and pleasantly unexpected.  But more importantly, this film succeeds by keeping the focus off the cons and on the relationship between the two main characters.  Their arc moves very organically and they feel like fully fleshed out characters by the end of the film.

I think what I appreciated most, though, was the on-screen presence of Ryan O’Neal.  Having only heard his name connected with the film Love Story, which I have not seen, but heard plenty of sappy things about, I wasn’t expecting much.  But, as with most con men, he delivers a character that is both charming and yet subtly nefarious.  Tatum O’Neal was cute as well, and she brought an attitude to it that was a nice surprise.  Her performance reminded me slightly of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Another film that comes to mind when discussing this film is Matchstick Men. While this film isn’t nearly as complex, it carries many of the same themes, tones, and character dynamics.  The primary relationships in each film very closely resemble one another.

For any seasoned movie watcher, this movie won’t necessarily provide anything particularly fresh or different, but it’s simply a very enjoyable watch with some sweet characters and a beautiful relationship.  Those who like con films won’t find the complex twists and turns either, but there are a few interesting procedural moments to latch onto.  I’d definitely give this the ol’ recommend

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