Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Paper Moon

I’ve always found it rather interesting that Peter Bogdanovich never really became as big a name director as his 70s contemporaries like Coppola, Scorsese, or Spielberg. It’s not really that he isn’t any good, as between this and his other big early 70s hit The Last Picture Show, I have to assume that, even if he may not have been at the same level as the three others I mentioned, he was still certainly good enough to be considered a major talent in his own right. Based on this film, though, I think I have the answer. At a time when every hot young director was making waves by trying to redefine how movies worked, it seems the only unpardonable sin then was to openly embrace the cinema of times gone by and make a movie with the look and feel of a comedy from the silver age.

Filmed in black and white, and set during the Depression, the film follows Ryan O’Neal as a small time con man that goes around selling customized bibles to grieving widows, and who gets unexpectedly saddled with a young girl played by Tatum O’Neal, who may or may not be his daughter. After some initial squabbles, they realize it’s in both of their best interests to team up, so as to better rip everyone else off, and the rest of the film is devoted to their squabbling as they try to stay one step ahead of their marks.

Tatum, at ten years old when this was made, still holds the record for the youngest person to ever win a competitive award (Best Supporting Actress) at the Academy Awards. It’s an award that I think she earned here, even though she was up against Linda Blair’s work in The Exorcist (which I do think is the better film overall of the two). This is especially amazing given how awful most child actors are, giving us a forced cuteness and attempted incorrigability that just makes you want to thrash them about the ears. In contrast, she never seems to smile here, already bitter and world-weary at such a young age, and fully able to get the upper hand against any of the adults she encounters.

The film has that marriage of playful sweetness and black humor that typified a number of the great old black and white comedies, like those involving the Marx Brothers or Nick and Nora. If it doesn’t quite reach truly great comedic heights like those older films did, well, at least it does a fine job of trying. The two have a natural chemistry together, which I guess would go without saying, given that they are real life father and daughter. Had Bogdanovich started his career at any other time, I have to believe that he would have been a much longer lasting success than he was, and while it’s probably too late for him to have any kind of comeback, I do hope that one day he will recapture his brief old success.

Rating: ***

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