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It may not be Spielberg's most important work, but this DiCaprio/Hanks cat-and-mouse game plays wonderfully in high-def....
Paramount / 141 Minutes / 2002 / Rated PG-13 / Street Date: December 4, 2012
Catch Me If You Can is a cinematic cream puff, the kind of movie that could only have been made by a filmmaker for one of three reasons: 1) he/she is tired of being serious; 2) he/she is really bored; or 3) he/she doesn't know what to do next. For Steven Spielberg, perhaps it was all three. After a decade of highs, highs and more highs (and the kind of lows any other filmmaker would kill for), perhaps Spielberg just needed a break. When you've directed the likes of Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, A.I. and Minority Report in the span of less than ten years, what are you gonna do for an encore? Win more Oscars? Make more money? How about direct a movie that is so inconsequential no one will really care what happens to it? Catch Me If You Can is Spielberg's answer to that other Steven (Soderbergh's) cinematic lark, Ocean's Eleven: it is fun, frothy and not particularly significant. But then everybody needs to have a little fun sometimes, right?
Based on the truly story of Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), it's the swingin' 50's and 15-year-old Frank is having a rough time. His parents on the verge of financial collapse, mom soon splits (Nathalie Baye), leaving dad (Christopher Walken, in an Oscar-nominated performance) to pick up the pieces. But Frank Jr. decides to run, and run he does. Over the next five years, he will orchestrate one of the most famous scams in American history. With FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) hot on his trail, Abagnale weaves a trail of ingenious cons and broken hearts, successfully impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor, an assistant attorney general and a history professor. Along the way he passes more than $2.5 million in fraudulent checks across 26 countries. Like all criminals, no matter how smart, he will eventually be caught. But more important is what redemption, if any, lies at the end of the runway.
Catch Me If You Can is one of those movies I thoroughly enjoyed every single minute of, even if it left me with no lasting emotional residue. Everything about it is right where it should be, with tongue firmly planted in cheek: great cast, great look, great score and, of course, you've got Spielberg directing it. Having not read Frank Abagnale, Jr.'s own book, I can't say how much more depth he goes into about what was going through his mind while pulling off his incredible escapades. The film, however, doesn't scratch very deep beneath the surface. Any caper movie like this lives and dies by the gags its protagonist tries to pull off, and generates its suspense by stringing us along with how he's going to con his way out of all his last-minute scrapes. Spielberg and DiCaprio handle all of the expected scenarios with wit and charm (impersonating a flight officer, his first big day on the job at a hospital, etc.), and the pace is surprisingly snappy given the film's rather overlong 121-minute runtime. Yet oddly enough, the near-screwball antics suffer from being a bit too tame; we're left with a film stuck in the middle, as if Jeff Nathanson's script can't quite decide whether it wants to be an all-out comedy or a dark drama. Guess you can't have your cake and eat it, too.
The real heart of this movie lies in the relationship between the two Franks, Jr. and Sr., which is paralleled effectively in the Hanks-DiCaprio cat-and-mouse game. Walken has some great scenes, and by the climax, we are somehow again in classic Spielberg territory, the lost boy gazing mournfully through a window at the nuclear family that long ago abandoned him. Some expressed surprise at Spielberg's choice to direct Catch Me If You Can, once again proclaiming it a "departure" for the "escapist" Spielberg. But here he returns to his same familiar themes - broken families that can never quite be put back together again, the disparity between seeing and believing, and an ordinary man who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances. Leave it to the most successful modern filmmaker of the past half-century to once again take subject matter that seems impossible to Spielberg-ize and... do the impossible.
I don't want to sound down on Catch Me If You Can. It is great entertainment, everyone looks like they had a great time making it, and the fun is infectious. Still, I couldn't help but wonder why, after it was all over, it so quickly dissolves from the memory. Where is this film going to be ten, twenty years from now? A basic cable staple for sure, but could it have been more? Who knows? So let's just revel in what is amazing about Catch Me If You Can, which is how fanciful Spielberg waves his wand this time around. Not since the early days has he been this light on his feet. Catch Me If You Can is essentially one big con game of a movie, but this time we don't feel ripped off at the end, we feel elated.