Catch Me If You Can
It maybe could’ve used some tightening, but Catch Me If You Can is still the most purely fun Steven Spielberg film since his incredible decade-long streak as a master entertainer (from, say, 1975 to 1985, when he started yearning to sit at the grown-up table with The Color Purple). There’s nothing in particular riding on the movie, no stentorian tributes to historical courage; it’s just Spielberg larking — it’s not important. (Even the enjoyable Minority Report unfurled Big Statements about privacy and the future of law enforcement.) And the movie’s very lightness has freed up Spielberg, made him a looser and more generous director than we’ve witnessed in some time.
Based on Frank W. Abagnale’s memoir, the film tracks young Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) from age sixteen as he flits around putting on and discarding identities with the casual breeziness and imperturbable suavity of a born con man. His antics, which include forging millions of dollars’ worth of checks and posing as an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, catch the eye of FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), a grim, businesslike bear (Hanks makes him humorously humorless) who makes it his life’s work to catch Frank. The movie, for all its location shifts and elaborate scams, is essentially a feature-length chase, which puts it in the league of early single-minded Spielberg entries like Duel and especially The Sugarland Express.
If you plan a double-feature rental of the two December 2002 Leo flicks, Gangs of New York and Catch Me If You Can, do yourself a favor and take in Gangs first; then settle in for Catch Me and rediscover Leonardo DiCaprio the actor. Disgruntled and one-note in Gangs, DiCaprio opens up wide in Catch Me, having obvious fun that he doesn’t hesitate to share. He’s basically playing an actor — a kid bold enough to sell strangers on whichever persona he’s trying on — and DiCaprio glows with the sneaky joy of imposture. His scenes with Christopher Walken, gainfully cast against type as Frank’s loving dad, flow with an affectionate intimacy that caught me by surprise. When Frank impersonates a substitute French teacher and his parents are called in, Walken’s expressions — when he finds out what the kid’s been up to, and when he can’t suppress a grin at his son — speak volumes: Frank is a more successful chip off the old block.
This is a classic Spielberg film in spirit and theme, but not in style. With Schindler’s List, Spielberg made two major changes in his familiar approach: He dropped his usual tics like dolly shots and Close Encounters backlighting, and he took on cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who’s been with him for almost a decade now. Catch Me If You Can is Spielberg’s most colorful film in years — certainly not the monochromatic blue of Minority Report — and it’s shot with soft filters and relaxed compositions that recall the movies of the period (the mid- to late-’60s). The movie feels a little long here and there, particularly in the segment dealing with Frank’s engagement to a fresh-faced Atlanta blonde (Amy Adams), but it still goes like a shot without seeming rushed. Making a movie about a wunderkind of deception, Spielberg must’ve tapped into his old self, the big-fibber and fantasist who told great lies like Jaws and Close Encounters and made us believe them.
The movie is a good time. It not only produces happiness, it is happy. It buzzes with the pleasure of people — on camera and behind it, in and out of screen character — who are damn good at what they do and love doing it. Even the stoic Carl Hanratty gets a contact high from Frank’s sheer daring, and gets electrified by the possibility that he may finally have an adversary worth the chase. Hanratty moves heaven and earth to bring the kid to book but, on some level, can’t help loving Frank’s ingenuity and skill. Neither can Spielberg. Catch Me If You Can is not an intensely personal film for Spielberg. That’s what’s so good about it.