After tackling two hugely-budgeted science-fiction epics in a row (2001's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
" and 2002's "Minority Report
"), making the lightly-comic, lightly-dramatic "Catch Me If You Can" must have seemed like a walk in the park for Steven Spielberg. Without the need for complex special effects and free to explore a solely character-oriented story, Spielberg makes directing seem like an effortless profession. He is that good.
Based on the book by Frank Abagnale Jr. and Stan Redding, "Catch Me If You Can" is the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), a teenage boy growing up in 1960s New York who ran away from home following his parent's divorce and made a living out of slyly and meticulously impersonating a doctor, a co-pilot for Pan Am airlines, and a lawyer. Hot on his trail but seemingly always one step behind is FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), who grows to admire and respect Frank's clear brilliance despite having only met him once. Told in elongated flashbacks as Frank is being escorted by Hanratty to an American prison, Frank had cashed more than $2.5 million in fraudulent checks around the world and in all fifty states by the time he was caught at the age of 19.
Written by Jeff Nathanson (2001's "Rush Hour 2
"), "Catch Me If You Can" is a terrifically engaging film with a plot that would be utterly ludicrous if not based on fact. The animated opening credits by Agnes Deygas, evoking the caper movie style of late composer Henry Mancini ("The Pink Panther" series), are the best of the year, paving the way for the tone of what is to come. "Catch Me If You Can" has funny moments, but isn't really a comedy. It is touching, but not a full-blown drama. Instead, it is an amazing slice-of-life--amazing because of what Frank Abagnale Jr. was able to get away with at the age of 16, and how he was able to elude the FBI for so long.
The production design by Jeannine Claudia Oppewall (2000's "Wonder Boys
"), the music score by John Williams (2002's "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
"), the costumes by Mary Zophres (2002's "Moonlight Mile
"), and the period soundtrack all contribute in capturing the look and feel of the 1960s with equal measures of nostalgia and accuracy. A little distracting, however, is the cinematography by Spielberg-regular Janusz Kaminski. I am not sure why Spielberg has adopted a grainy, underexposed look for his recent pictures, but it has begun to wear out its welcome.
Leonardo DiCaprio, more memorable here than he was in "Gangs of New York
," makes the film his own (he is in nearly every scene). DiCaprio steps into the shoes of Frank Abagnale Jr. with ease, outwardly projecting charisma and self-assuredness to mask the fear and regret he has about abandoning his parents and lying to people he has cared about. One of those lied to is Brenda Strong (Amy Adams), a shy, sweet candystriper Frank meets while posing as a doctor in an Atlanta hospital. Frank, not one to turn down the ladies, falls in love for the first time with Brenda, but their relationship is doomed because of his crimes and dishonesty, and he knows it.
Amy Adams (1999's "Drop Dead Gorgeous
") is a real find as Brenda, a young woman who has made mistakes in her past, but holds a bright outlook for her future. There is a real poignancy in the way DiCaprio and Adams play their final scene together, because their relationship has grown to mean nearly as much to the viewer as it does to them.
As Carl Hanratty, Tom Hanks (2002's "Road to Perdition
") smartly underplays the role as a man more intelligent than he sometimes lets on, but still a step below Frank's own cunning. Christopher Walken (2002's "The Country Bears
"), too often typecast as the heavy, is deeply moving as Frank Abagnale Sr. Father and son, both of whom have been in trouble with the law, share a mutual respect for each other that rings with resounding truth and unspoken words. And Jennifer Garner (2000's "Dude, Where's My Car?
" and TV's "Alias") shines in the small part of a prostitute who blissfully falls for one of Frank's cons.
At 140 minutes, the final act of "Catch Me If You Can" runs a little too long, extraneously including a few climactic scenes that weren't really necessary. An opening sequence in which DiCaprio is seamlessly placed within an episode of the old game show, "To Tell the Truth," also fails to pay off as it should have at the end. Minor quibbles aside, "Catch Me If You Can" is entertaining, quick-paced, and clearly the work of director Steven Spielberg, once again returning to a human-based story that has been lovingly crafted with both precision and whimsy.
©2002 by Dustin Putman