Spielberg’s Catch Me a male ‘weepie’ that never quite sheds tears
Frank Abagnale’s brief, brilliant career as a precocious and prodigiously successful con man would seem promising material for a pulpy crime film, if not a caustically ironic bio-pic. But in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, Abagnale’s story loses most of its sharp edges and becomes instead a weirdly slanted feel-good adventure story, complete with gifted-kid-who-needs-to-phone-home.
Leonardo Di Caprio exudes wily charm in the central role, and a faintly bloated-looking Tom Hanks makes a satisfactory foil as the beleaguered FBI agent doggedly following his trail. Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson portray both men as lonely souls cut adrift from badly needed family life, and that patently Spielbergian sentiment may be at the heart of the process that softens these characters and their stories into a blandly “middle-American” mush.
The movie’s Abagnale is a sweet-faced boy genius whose scams, forgeries, and deceptions are viewed less as crimes than as the exploits of a naive, misunderstood kid wildly overcompensating for the inadequacies and failures of his parents. With the spin that Spielberg puts on Abagnale’s crimes (including the theft of several million dollars), the kid’s outrageously successful maneuvers begin to look like paradoxical signs of innocence.
It’s easy enough to take all this as a rollicking picaresque tale in the high-tech urban environment of the modern professions. But this is picaresque of a particularly nerdy sort, and Spielberg is clearly more interested in the character’s technical resourcefulness than in the fey roguishness of Abagnale’s seductions and impersonations.
Most of the women in the story are portrayed as grotesquely gullible pawns whose mawkish vanity frees Abagnale of any need to feel guilt over his (sometimes very elaborate) manipulations of them. That same ploy also conveniently simplifies the matter of audience sympathies—the emotions of the chief male characters are all that matters here.
Add Christopher Walken to the mix (as Abagnale’s father, a shady business man and practiced self-deceiver), and Catch Me If You Can begins to look like a male “weepie” that never gets around to actually shedding tears. Walken gives a brilliant performance as a pathetically brassy character, and he is the only character in the film for whom the bills really come due.
Even the ironies and humor in Spielberg’s direction seem facile and empty. Intercutting a Di Caprio bedroom scene with one of Hanks blundering around at a laundromat adds up to nothing apart from a small, smug joke. And blatant emotional convenience seems to have everything to do with why the FBI, its agents portrayed as bumbling idiots while in pursuit of Abagnale, suddenly becomes a model of efficiency once the decision is made to give the kid some understanding and respect.