Now Playing: Catch Me If You Can

Posted: Monday, December 30, 2002

The premise for the new Leonardo DiCaprio/Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg film, Catch Me If You Can, sounds a little iffy. A guy is able to successfully impersonate a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, and pass millions of dollars in bad checks, all before the age of eighteen? No way. Besides that, most of the time you jam that many star players into a production, all you end up with is a top-heavy mess that goes nowhere; remember Father's Day? Luckily, all this negativity rattling around in my head as I settled into my seat was completely blown away. From the first second of the fascinating and superbly designed title sequence, I was hooked.

Catch Me is the supposedly true story of Frank Abagnale, Jr., one of this country's most successful con artists. I say "supposedly," because the whole story is based on his autobiography, and how far can you really trust a guy who did all the things he claims to have done? The story begins in 1962, at the very tip-top of what will be a long down-hill slide for the once successful and respected Abagnale clan. Frank has just turned sixteen. His father, a local businessman, has just been awarded a lifetime achievement award by his chapter of the Rotary Club. His mother and father are in love. Everything's coming up roses. And then it isn't. The IRS comes knocking and things start to crumble. Mom has an affair, Dad's world starts to slip away, and then, the unthinkable. Divorce. Young Frank can't handle it, and he's gone, just like that. And so begins an incredible six-year run of extravagant living. And he did it all with just a smile and a confident attitude. He starts off passing a few bad checks, just to get by. Then, aided by the knowledge learned from working in his father's stationary shop, his forgeries get better and better. Soon, no one can tell the difference. He realizes that people in certain positions get asked fewer questions, pilots for example, and he becomes one. Doctors make a good living; he is one. Ditto for lawyers. He's got the girls; he's got the money. The only thing missing is his family, and that's his ultimate downfall.

One might worry that a film like this would actually be promoting larceny and dishonesty. However, in Spielberg's infinitely talented hands, it becomes a story about the strength of bonds between a father and son, and the relationship created between cop and criminal when the earlier bond is damaged. Christopher Walken is excellent as Frank Abagnale, Sr., a man devoted to his son, but even more devoted to getting back at the government he felt had ruined his life. Rarely is Walken able to transcend his own menacing persona to create anything more than a caricature. He does it here; he creates a beautiful portrait of a heartbroken man who wants nothing but the best for his son, but can't bring himself to be more than the devil on Frank Jr.'s shoulder. The angel, on the other hand, his played masterfully (as usual) by Tom Hanks. As Agent Carl Handratty, Hanks pursues Abagnale relentlessly, even at the risk of his own career. But is he simply trying to get his man, or is trying protect a young man without direction? Nearly every role Hanks creates these days seems worthy of award, but I doubt he'll get one for this elegant portrayal. It's just not showy enough, which is exactly the point.

The real stars, however, are Spielberg and DiCaprio. Leonardo plays Frank as charming, affable, and ultimately scared to death, and he does it without all the bombast and swagger we've come to fear from him. His performance is right on. Spielberg, for his part, shows that there is no story he can't tell. The reason is, whether he's talking about artificial intelligence or World War II, his films are about more than the subject matter. They are about the bonds we all share; families, friends, even enemies. That may sound cheesy and trite, but he's created over a billion dollars in box office revenues by himself, and it doesn't look likely to change anytime soon.

Catch Me If You Can is just like Frank Abagnale himself, charming, confident, and completely disarming. From it's whimsical score to it's perfect production design, it's everything you want in a holiday movie. The only real way it differs from it's subject is that this film is the genuine article. Catch it. Grade: A+

Catch Me If You Can is rated PG-13 for language and brief sexual situations.

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