Catch Me If You Can

Steal This Movie: Spielberg's least ambitious, least "important" film in years. It's also his most enjoyable and fully realized.

Catch Me If You Can
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Jeff Nathanson
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken

Catch Me If You Can swings. No better way to put it. From the animated opening credits to the closing fade, it’s a fast, fluid, finger-popping ride – sleek but not slick, bold but not bombastic, involving but not overweening. In short, it’s unlike anything Steven Spielberg has done in years.

America’s Filmmaker has labored so hard to play so many roles – serious artist, social historian, Stanley Kubrick – it’s easy to forget the one thing he indisputably is: a prodigiously gifted narrative filmmaker. By the markers he’s laid down across a decade of gargantuan spectacle (Jurassic Park), emotional sweep (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan), and grim portent (AI, Minority Report), this sprightly tale of a 1960s fraudster who stole millions under a variety of guises before turning 20 is Spielberg’s least ambitious, least “important” film in years. It’s also his most enjoyable and fully realized. With no agenda beyond telling a good story well, he’s at the top of his game.

Example: Late in the movie, Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) – pilot, doctor, lawyer, teen – escapes an airport dragnet led by his nemesis, FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). Set to Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” the sequence is as snappily executed as Abagnale’s plan itself. No fireworks, no blue-screen FX, just filmmaking so muscular and confident it almost swaggers.

“Inspired by” (read: freely adapted from) a true story, Catch Me careers across an America of fondue pots and finned cars, its flamboyant thief getting rich but losing his soul as he is pursued by an Inspector Javert in a government-issue suit. Fleeing his broken suburban home after his beloved businessman dad (Christopher Walken, making the most of his first real part in years) is hounded into debt and divorce by tax trouble, Frank starts small (kiting checks for bus fare and rent) and learns quickly that everyone loves a man in a uniform. He ages 10 years with a fake ID, scams Pan Am togs, and talks his way into cockpits as the spare co-pilot, the better to fabricate payroll checks.

Soon Frank is rolling in women and dough, and attracting the attention of button-down fraud specialist Hanratty, who comes to realize that his adversary is a kid – a very smart kid. Whenever the G-man gets close, Frank re-invents himself. He becomes a pediatrician in Georgia, a prosecutor in Louisiana, a pilot again in Miami, shedding one skin after another and charming everyone in his path, marveling at his own audacity and only half-believing that he keeps getting away with it. And he takes to taunting Hanratty in a series of Christmas phone calls – because, it becomes increasingly clear, he has no one else to talk to.

If the film is occasionally clunky in sketching its central dichotomy – contrasting Frank’s footloose life with Hanratty’s dour, dutiful existence – it is smart and subtle in limning Frank’s dilemma. He can’t share his riches with the dad he’s doing it all for lest the feds get wise, and he can’t give up his increasingly lonely, frenetic life, because vicariously sticking it to The Man is all his old man has left. When Abagnale Sr. practically demands that his exhausted son keep on conning, it’s a quietly wrenching moment.

The dark undercurrents lend a bit of shading and depth to what is essentially a marvelous fizz, delightfully of its time and place but outside it, too. (No Vietnam or civil rights in this 1960s America, and any moral qualms about Frank’s line of work are studiously glossed over.) Hanks, sliding into doughy middle age, is a bit programmatic at first, acting mostly with his owlish specs and nor’easter accent, but he fills out the character as Hanratty grows both more frustrated and grudgingly protective of his target. And DiCaprio slips seamlessly into Frank’s charismatic, chameleonic persona, shedding his own skin (moody/beautiful teen idol) with an energetic star turn that’s a blast to watch.

Spielberg, with a mandate only to entertain, seems equally liberated. There’s none of the eagerness to please or impress that mars even his noblest work, none of the usual mawkish molasses. Even at a pushing-it 141 minutes, Catch Me If You Can is his most briskly propulsive film since Raiders of the Lost Art more than 20 years back, but it’s smoother and more mature, the work of a filmmaker finally acting like he doesn’t have something to prove. Usually when Spielberg sets out to snare an audience, you end up feeling manipulated. Here, you just want to get taken along for the ride.

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