Moses Pray (Ryan O'Neal) shows up at a funeral in Depression-era America, ostensibly to pay his last respects to the deceased, a woman he used to know who has left a child behind. The girl is Addie (Tatum O'Neal), and as she never found out who her father was, she is an orphan now with nobody but an aunt at the other side of the country to stay with. Here's where Moze's actual interest lies: he is a conman and has worked out a way to squeeze cash out of the company responsible for Addie's mother's untimely death...
Not that he intended the child to see any of that money aside from a twenty dollar bill and a train ticket to meet her aunt, but the main concept of Paper Moon was the kid being as much a clever con artist as her new guardian was. We suspect, as does Addie, that Moze is really her father, something a shirker like him refuses to contemplate, so the human touch of the plot was in proving that she was indeed her father's daughter. Part of the run of seventies movies that waxed nostalgic about the thirties, this was in effect a higher prestige variation on The Sting, only with a different set up between its duo of fraudsters.
Contributing to the novelty was the fact that the two main principals were father and daughter in real life, an item of stunt casting that paid off when Tatum was awarded a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her efforts. That choice is controversial even today, as you could not claim the girl was putting in a better performance than the also nominated Madeline Kahn, who shows up as Moze's new girlfriend only to be sent packing by Addie's jealous schemes. And besides, Tatum here was in practically every scene, meaning it was only her age that got her into the Supporting category instead of the Leading one.
It set her on an acting career as her father had, but it's worth noting that nobody was more surprised than director Peter Bogdanovich that she won such a prestigious prize, as he pointed out that he spent most of the time with her struggling to get her to remember her lines. But seeing someone of those tender years plotting, trading verbal barbs and even smoking was enough of a surprise to the audience of the time to respond to what was seen as part of the sassy spirit of the then-modern age. Watching her now, what was acclaimed as a refreshing lack of sentimentality looks more like cold cynicism; at times she's like a miniature Edward G. Robinson in the way she deports herself.
For much of the story, drawn from Joe David Brown's bestselling novel, we follow these two unlovely criminals as they team up to fleece widows of a small amount of cash posing as Bible salesmen, only it's OK because Addie doesn't allow Moze to steal from anyone too poor, but soon they are graduating to more ambitious scams. It's hard to ignore that much of this is not especially funny, and for a comedy very little provokes laughter unless kids behaving badly or acting old beyond their years is your idea of golden humour, something Bogdanovich relied on far too heavily. Yet once it reaches the last act, the part with the bootlegging, the presence of a genuinely menacing John Hillerman as a corrupt sheriff brings more tension and considerably more reason to stay engaged with the material - it almost turns into a thriller. But the accusations of Paper Moon being overrated were legitimate, as it may have looked great in Laszlo Kovacs' gleaming photography, but its chilly drama was difficult to warm to.