Set in the 1930s, “Paper Moon” tells the story of a grifter named Moses Pray played by Ryan O’Neal who travels from place to place running cons for money. At the beginning of the film, he finds himself at a funeral that’s left a young girl named Addie (played by O’neals own daughter Tatum, who won the Academy Award for her portrayal) orphaned. Smelling opportunity for cons, Moses agrees to take the girl to her family in Missouri. He convinces her relatives to cough up $200 for her, then he tries to buy her a train ticket and give her $20 and send her on her way. She’s a lot more strong-willed than that and demands her $200.
Unable to get rid of the girl without causing a scene and since she’s too sharp to accept his grifting, Moses reluctantly takes her with him. As he goes to earn her money back, they discover she’s adept at pulling cons herself and they start working as a team.
They go through their adventures and manage to lose all of their money by the time they get to Missouri. There, Moses deposits Addie with her distant relative, just like he said he would. But that’s not where Addie belongs, and she reunites with Moses, despite his better judgement, and they go back to their life, presumably.
It’s a terrific movie, sharp in its dialogue, and perfectly orchestrated by Peter Bogdonavich. The atmosphere of the depression era bleeds off the screen, and Ryan O’Neal and his daughter Tatum have a genuine chemistry that can’t be faked. Tatum O’Neal is absolutely magnetic in the film, easily as good as Grogu is as a foil to Din Djarin on “The Mandalorian.”