Catch Me If You Can

January, 2003, Comedy

Directed by:Steven Spielberg

Starring:Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Amy Adams, Martin Sheen, and Nathalie Baye

Catch Me If You Can

Take three of Hollywood's most overrated talents, combine with an unappreciated veteran who delivers an Oscar-worthy supporting actor performance and sprinkle lightly with occasional mawkish elements in a script "based on a true story"; what do you get? A surprisingly charming fable from director Steven Spielberg, in which he again mines the perils of childhood, but this time with a whimsical touch. Since nothing terribly complex or deep is going on here, the director isn't in over his head, (as he was so disastrously in A.I.) and he uses his considerable craftsmanship to turn out one of the most likeable films of the holiday season.

Spielberg has been taking himself too seriously almost from the beginning of his unbelievably successful career; after the taut Duel and the slick  Jaws, he made Close Encounters of the Third Kind; from that point on, we've been forced to suffer his musings about the damage done to the impressionable young minds of bright, sensitive kids. From E.T. to Empire of the Sun to Hook, Spielberg's absorption with childhood experiences, (especially the impact of traumatic ones) has given much of his work the impression of an extended therapy session. His infrequent forays into serious adult themes, (Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan) while always crisply paced and visually interesting, inevitably find him slipping into big theme mode in a manner that inevitably lands with a pedantic thud. Astoundingly successful he is; a Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges, (not to mention Ford, Hawks or Scorsese) he ain't.

What a surprise then to find him the creative source behind this breezy tale of an exceptionally bright high schooler, (Leonardo DiCaprio) who responds to a financial and marital crisis in his parent's life by going on the lam, successfully impersonating an airline pilot, physician and lawyer, paying for all of it by embezzling millions of dollars, while eluding the F.B.I. A story tailored-made for the big screen, is it not?

DiCaprio plays Frank Abagnale Jr., a precocious New Rochelle high school student whose parents, (Christopher Walken and Natalie Baye) are the picture of middle class respectability and propriety. But Dad's being hounded by the I.R.S. for evading income taxes and Mom's wandering eye is casting about for a financially secure replacement; so junior begins acting out, first by impersonating a substitute teacher at the new school he's attending and then launching into real criminality as a check forger after he runs away from home to avoid being forced to choose between his parents in a custody battle.

Like Spielberg, DiCaprio is a very overrated commodity; after early critical acclaim in   and Romeo & Juliet, DiCaprio's appearance in Titanic vaulted him into the ranks of those superstars whose very presence in a movie assures large boxoffice. But in his case, a pair of clunkers, (Man in the Iron Mask & The Beach) cast suspicions on his marketability as well as his talent. His performance in the just-released Gangs of New York hasn't helped either; in it, he seems physically bloated and lethargic, the boyish charm vanished behind a scraggily beard, bloodshot eyes and a monotone vocal delivery. But in Catch Me, that youthful charm magically reappears; this is a fresh-faced, likable kid who's compulsively avoiding the reality of his parents' failed marriage and financial woes; this time, the eager-to-please tone of the actor's performance is right on the money.

Perhaps much of that can be explained by his cinematic foil, F.B.I. agent Carl Hanratty, played for low humor by Tom Hanks, the final member of this over-rated trio. Hanks has made a highly profitable career out of playing decent, likable guys over and over again. He doesn't stretch himself much here, playing a likeable but decent, rather dull bureaucrat with an inexplicably uneven Boston accent. Hanks' Hanratty spends years pursuing Abagnale, chasing him from the East Coast to L.A., then on to Atlanta and New Orleans and finally abroad, gagging at the chutzpah of this young, fresh-faced crook. But Hanratty's frustration gradually gives way to grudging respect, if not secret admiration for the sheer magnitude of Abagnale's deceptions. Hanratty's dogged devotion to duty finally brings his quest to heel, only to become a surrogate father in the movie’s surprisingly upbeat denouement.  Hanks usually selects roles that allow him to be the center of attention; here he's plays second banana to the flamboyant DiCaprio, and does so with considerable graciousness.

But it's Christopher Walken, playing Abagnale Sr. who's really guilty of grand theft--he steals the picture, along with the hearts of the audience. He inhabits the role of a father and husband trying to tap dance through the hard parts of life with the same charming pretense he employs with the customers in his stationary store, never realizing that however gamely he bobs and weaves, he'll never outrun his sins. Walken typically shines at playing conflicted characters that frequently explode in violence, (The Deer Hunter, True Romance) but here he embodies a vulnerable decency made all the more touching because his posturing for wife and son are as heartfelt as they are ineffective.

 Walken once said, "I'd love to do a character with a wife, a nice little house, a couple of kids, a dog, maybe a bit of singing, and no guns and no killing, but nobody offers me that kind of part". Well, Spielberg has, and Walken makes the best of it, delivering his lines like a major league screwball pitcher, the windup perfectly masking the location of his delivery. Presenting a brave face to a son who knows the real truth, Abagnale Sr. signals his love even as he's lying through his teeth; the scenes between Walken and DiCaprio are the best part of the movie and perhaps Spielberg's most successful effort yet at capturing the haunting costs of generational miscommunication. 

All this goes on a bit too long, with plot embellishments that strain credibility and personal relationships which teeter on the brink of sentimentality, but the pacing is buoyed up by DiCaprio's charm and fueled with Walken's unabashed admiration for his son's duplicitous accomplishments. The film's chief pleasure lies in Walken's unexpected ability to seduce us into rooting for DiCaprio's endless capers the way he does; not since The Sting has large-scale larceny been quite so attractive. 

While you can doubt the overall credibility of this supposedly true tale of sin and redemption, watching it unfold is an amusing treat, crisply delivered.

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