Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
Everything in Paper Moon boils down to negotiations. When Moses (Ryan O’Neal) casually drops by a funeral for an old flame, he expects to get the hell out of there almost immediately. The problem is that the deceased woman has a daughter, Addie (Tatum O’Neal), and no one deems themselves fit to take care of her. Moses too claims he can’t take her, but when he mentions he’s headed up towards St. Louis, the pastor and two other funeral attendees insist he take Addie because she has an aunt that way.
So that’s how we find Moses, a traveling bible salesman, traveling with his new 9 year old side kick who may or may not be his daughter, but probably is. What’s interesting about this film is how much we learn about Moses as the story goes on. We don’t know his connection to Addie’s mother and we never learn exactly what their relationship was. While it’s likely that Addie is his daughter, Moses never appears broken up about the death of Addie’s mother. It’s just another thing that happened in a life full of things happening. Moses has nothing tying him down, and he intends on preserving that lifestyle.
After picking up Addie, he goes to a man to extort him out of $200 (though he would settle for any amount most likely) because the man’s brother killed Addie’s mother in a drunk driving accident. So Moses is familiar with the deceased woman, and he’s willing to take advantage of the situation. This story takes place in 1935 so $200 goes a long way. He uses the money to fix up his car, but his plan to stick Addie on a train up North fails when she demands the $200 because it’s owed to her.
Moses realizes how stubborn Addie is (as well is he), and he takes her with him. That’s when we learn that Moses is a con artist, hunting the obituaries so he can show up at the doorstep of the wife of a deceased man and insist the man had ordered a bible for her with her name on it. He gains their trust by claiming the man had left a $1 deposit which he will return. Of course, the widows are happy to pay the $8 dollars for such a delightful gift.
Addie quickly joins in on the fun, helping ensure the success of these cons and even getting more money out of the people when she can. They begin to bond, but then at a fair, Moses picks up a woman named Trixie (Madeline Kahn) and her handy helper, Imogene (P.J. Johnson). This drives Addie crazy, mainly because she’s relegated to the backseat. She eventually concocts a plan to have Trixie sleep with a hotel bellhop, allowing Moses to walk in on them.
Then the two of them are back on the road together. They continue to make money, but they reach a little too high when they steal a man’s moonshine and sell it back to him for a few hundred dollars. They’re arrested by the man’s brother, a cop, but they briefly get away when Addie orchestrates the escape.
After crossing state lines they think they’ve got it made. The two of them come up with another con, but Moses is apprehended by the cop who beats him up and takes all his money. Feeling low, Moses decides none of this has been worth it, and he takes Addie to her aunt’s home.
On the road, Moses sees a photo of Addie sitting on a paper moon, alone, from the fair at which he met Trixie. It’s enough of a reminder of their bond that he stops the car and considers going back. In the time he thinks about reuniting with her, Addie has already run out to greet him. It’s telling that she’s the one who comes to find him rather than the other way around, as you might have expected. Addie is always the one pulling the strings. The two of them ride off down a long road with only $10 in their pocket.
There’s never a seen in which Moses reflects on Addie’s mother or anything in his past. He rolls with the punches and seems to let everything pass over or through him. He’s constructed a simple life for himself but one that requires him to think about no one else other than himself. When he picks up Trixie, he seems smitten with her, and maybe he is. Tribe, however, reveals to Addie that she knows he’ll only keep her around for a limited time. She has no misconceptions about where their fling will go, and her own solitary life with men coming and goings has got her down.
Addie, though, sticks to Moses like a leach. She won’t let go, possibly because she recognizes that he’s her father or possibly because she needs to survive and has nowhere else to go.
When Addie stands helplessly by after the funeral while the adults try to get rid of her, it really feels like her life is at stake. She’s a child and yet everything is up in the air. There’s no one to care for her, and even after Moses takes her, there’s still no one what wants to take care of her. She observes Moses negotiate with the man who ultimately gives him $200, and she learns very quickly what it takes to survive out here.
Moses gives a short speech about how it’s important to look after yourself when they drive past a family standing around their broken down car. Addie wants to help them, paraphrasing Franklin Roosevelt who said you should help other people. Moses, though, defects her concerns by telling her how wealthy FDR is, so who is he to talk? Moses is just a regular guy, and his concerns are only with his own survival because anything outside of that is too much to bear.
So Addie herself is too much to bear, at leas until she proves herself deft at encouraging his cons. She knows that Moses needs a reason to keep her around, and she demonstrates it almost immediately. Soon Addie is off making her own negotiations. Trixie makes a deal with her after Addie pouts and refuses to get in the car, and Trixie’s story about getting dumped on the side of the road by the men in her life appeals to Addie’s empathy while also confirming her fear of being ditched on the side of the road.
With Trixie around, Moses becomes unconcerned with conning people, making Addie irrelevant. Sensing this, she makes a deal with Imogene to get Trixie out of her life, and it works.
Though the film feels like it’s heading towards an inevitable reunion between Moses and Addie, it doesn’t quite give you the exact catharsis you would expect. First of all, Moses never goes back to get Addie, despite it appearing like he will. He just stops the car and remains indecisive. Addie forces him to act when she shows up, and even then he resists taking her back out on the road with him.
Addie reminds Moses that he still owes her $200 and thus the deal hasn’t yet been made. Then the car begins rolling down the hill, Addie notices and gets Moses’ attention, and they jump in. Addie is the one who decides things and Moses is the one who acts off of those decisions. The film effectively begins with a negotiation and ends with a reminder that the negotiation hasn’t been completed. Though there are feelings of affection underneath the surface, Moses isn’t mature enough or willing to let himself feel that this relationship is anything but a deal made to help each other get by. Addie knows it’s a real bond, but she speaks in his lingo to keep herself around.