Hide in plain sight
Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh literally competed against himself for Oscar laurels after both Traffic and Erin Brokovich opened in 2000. He followed those two probing social dramas with the marshmallow-like retro-caper Ocean’s Eleven.
Now, Steven Spielberg has succumbed to his dormant sweet tooth, as well. After exploring the dark corners of the future with AI: Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report, Spielberg has brought forth Catch Me If You Can, a breezy, playful, marginally gooey retro-caper of his own.
Catch Me If You Can was inspired by the amazing real life and 1980 autobiography of Frank W. Abagnale Jr. The movie is the cinematic version of a pastel-colored cocktail diluted with crushed, crackling ice and capped by a petite parasol. Both are novelties of sort that pack more promise than wallop. Both also promise more fun than they deliver.
Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (Rush Hour 2) blend social satire, father-son relationships, family crisis, loosely knit scams and cat-and-mouse pursuit into a brisk but rather disposable confection that occasionally wears thin during its 140-minute run time. The story is touching, funny, vividly nostalgic, suspenseful and at times stranger than fiction. But, like the lounge-influenced Ocean’s Eleven, it feels more stuck in time than tapped into its own soul.
The film bounces between 1963 and 1969 as the teen Abagnale (played with credible vulnerability and flair by 27-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio) becomes one of the nation’s most wanted and celebrated criminals. Sixteen-year-old Frank worships his hustler father (a smooth and subdued Christopher Walken).
Then, the bottom suddenly falls out of both of their worlds. Frank Sr. had won a Medal of Honor during World War II and had returned home with a French bride (Nathalie Baye) who was coveted by every GI within eyeshot. He is both honored by the New Rochelle (the home of The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Rob and Laura Petrie) Rotary Club and “hounded” by the IRS for tax fraud at about the same time. He loses his lucrative business, affluent home and wife. Frank Jr. has been schooled in several scams by his father and also has tested his own imposter talent by pretending to be a substitute teacher at his new high school. He runs away when asked to pick one parent with which to live.
Soon, he masquerades as a Pan Am co-pilot, a doctor and an attorney while scoring with women from Miami, Atlanta and Hollywood and passing millions of dollars in counterfeit checks.
The moving rub of the film is that Frank Jr., although enjoying a hedonistic and criminal lifestyle, is driven by the desire not only to impress and support his father but also to reunite his parents. With dogged FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks with a Bostonian accent) on his trail, the young hustler paints himself into a corner of the world from which there is no escape, and he can no longer consummate his dreams.
Catch Me If You Can is about loneliness (the three main male characters all have lost their home lives), father-son bonds, surrogate parenthood and a reversal of the parent-sibling roles of caretaker and ward.
Spielberg uses soft focus and fog effects to conjure up a fantasy feeling as ordinary people stumble through a slender but extraordinary chain of events. He does this so successfully that the proceedings lose their inherent emotional thrust. By the time Frank Jr. gets engaged to a candy striper (Amy Adams in braces) and uses her father to surface as a New Orleans assistant district attorney, the film becomes more of a fairytale about redemption than a welling of inner conflict.
Catch Me If You Can opens with animated credits that have the stylized feel of a Pink Panther cartoon and continues with a John Williams’ score drenched in Henry Mancini-like coolness. We are swept into the 1960s, an era known for Swinging Stewardesses, James Bond and Pussy Galore, and the advent of jet-setting. It’s a time and place where “an honest man has nothing to fear.” And it makes a strong case that honesty is indeed the best policy no matter when or how it finally surfaces.