When Rian Johnson suggested Paper Moon for this week's Cinematical Movie Club, I thought it was a great choice. In some ways, it's a lot like The Brothers Bloom, a funny story of cons that shines because of its characters. Both thrive on interpersonal interactions and character quirks. But these days, it is more than a notable Peter Bogdanovich feature that won Tatum O'Neal the honor of youngest Oscar winner. It's one of the many Hollywood stories where the glitz and glamor of showbiz covers a troubled reality. Drugs, abuse, and neglect are prominent in the story of the O'Neals, which seems to be ongoing with continual drug busts and even Ryan O'Neal accidentally hitting on Tatum.
None of that is present in the film, and in fact, Paper Moon offers a prime example of defying circumstances and coming out strong. Where Tatum's childhood woe is still on-going, her 9-year-old Addie is strong and unstoppable. Of course, growing up under the care of prostitute mother has left Addie with little sense of the law's morals. There's no struggle with right and wrong as she overhears her maybe-father' Moses' (Ryan O'Neal) cons. She simply wants in on the action.
Yet Addie is not without her own ethical code. Like the vampires who only drink from evil-doers and the Bloom brothers who have their own rules (don't con women, give everyone what they want), Addie evaluates her marks. When a harried widow comes to the door with gaggles of children, Addie stops Moses' bible scam and gives it away for free. When, however, they happen upon a wealthy widow with many of life's luxuries, she immediately pipes up with a higher price -- a Robin Hood of the con world, taking from the rich and helping the poor and struggling.
What is most remarkable to me is how O'Neal balanced knowingness in young Addie with childhood exuberance. Perhaps that is the revelation of her inner turmoil -- the reason her performance is so stunning, even in today's sea of Dakota Fannings and young girls growing up too quickly. Addie is sweet and pinchable, but also street-smart and knowing. It doesn't feel like she's simply clever, but rather that she's had to grow up quickly.
At nine years old, she knows what her mother was and what her mother did. I can't help but think that she probably witnessed it, and at the very least, its after-effects as she talks about the men in town who would give her candy or share a knowing look. When Bogdanovich shows Moses and his sense of propriety with his own conquests (refusing to let them in the room), is it just niceness, or a juxtaposition between how her mother handled sex and how he does? Furthermore, when Addie ends Moses' relationship with Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn), is it simply childhood selfishness or motherly protection?
In his review of the film, Emanuel Levy wrote "Glamorizing deviance and legitimizing Addie's status as a child-monster, the narrative fails to provide a clue as to how Addie is going to make the inevitable transition from childhood to maturity and womanhood." I would argue that she's already transitioning. She's growing increasingly mature and wise, it's just not in the ways we've grown accustomed. It seems wrong to project modern childhood on her. This is 1936, times are tough, and she grew up watching her mother sell her body to local men. She's got the youth of bubblegum and rollerskates, but she cannot dumb herself back into a child who didn't have hardships.
When she finally arrives at her aunt's house, she can't bear it. It's not because her family are monsters -- her aunt wants to make her lemonade and coddle her with love -- but it's just not suitable to the young woman she's become. She wants the white picket fence, but with Moses' presence. Sure, it could just be the thrill of the road and the connection she feels to him. It could be that she knows, deep-down, that he's her dad. But there's also this palpable sense of acceptance that cannot be ignored. Whether in bows and dresses or plaid and overalls, Moses lets her be her own person. It's not perfect, as she sits back and lights up a cigarette, but it suits her stage in life as she grows into a modern, less shackled woman.
Then again, maybe the idea that she can grow up as a modern con, bending gender roles and overflowing with strength is just another example of how we love the perfect dream and scenario, rather than the grittier reality. Is Addie really that secure and well-balanced? Is she destined for greatness or for a large fall like the actress who portrayed her?
- Is Addie being held back from transitioning to adulthood? I won't write "womanhood," because that seems to suggest she's a failure if she's not feminine.
- Considering the determination to cast a father and daughter -- the first incarnation with John Huston cast Paul Newman and his daughter Nell Potts -- it's obvious that the pair is meant to be father and daughter on the big screen. Why do they never verbally admit it? So that they always have the ability to leave each other?
- Vincent Canby of The New York Times found the film "oddly depressing instead of what is usually called heart-warming." In fact, he calls the film "fraudulent" for putting a sweet story along an all-too-believable Depression-era backdrop. Did this clash between banter and environment give you similar feelings? At what point is humor and lightness hurt by the environment and era?
Next Week's Film: Juno | Add it to your Netflix queue
Last Week's Film: The Brother's Bloom