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Catch Me If You Can (PG-13)
Official Site
Director: Steven Spielberg
Producers: Steven Spielberg, Walter F. Parkes
Written by: Jeff Nathanson; from the book by Frank W. Abagnale, with Stan Redding
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Nathalie Baye, Martin Sheen, James Brolin

Rating: out of 5

Catch Me If You Can is a wonderful, entertaining Spielberg movie. It has light moments that are like perfect soap bubbles and heavier moments that are affecting because they ring true instead of bathing you in bathos. It doesn’t wink too much at its audience, and it’s not yet another delivery system for Spielbergian emotional excess. Who knows what stayed the director’s hand here, but whatever it was, bless it. From the opening animation that runs under the credits to the very 1960s-movie-music by John Williams to its evocation of a much simpler time, the movie commits to the story it’s telling.

That story is based on a book of the same name by Frank Abagnale Jr., who stole millions of dollars through check fraud and successfully impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, all before he was 19 years old. It’s a fantastic story. Con artists who live by their wits rather than their victims’ stupidity are fascinating—witness the success of 1959’s The Great Impostor, about conman Ferdinand Demara, and the more recent TV show “The Pretender.”

Frank Jr. (DiCaprio) is a fortunate son as the movie opens. His businessman father (Walken) is being honored at a civic awards dinner. He and dad and his gorgeous mother (Baye), the French war bride Frank Sr. brought home, live in a big white house in New Rochelle (where Rob and Laura Petrie live!) and ride in a big white car. And his parents are an example of everything a married couple should be. They enjoy each other’s company and they’re in love. There’s a lovely scene, only slightly marred by excessive soft-focus, of the senior Abagnales dancing together in the living room, while their son, who’s clearly crazy about them, watches. But murky tax problems bring the IRS into the Abagnales’ lives and it all slips away. No more private school. No more Caddie. A rented apartment. A mother who now receives visits from a family friend in the middle of the day. Frank Jr. wants his life back. He especially wants to get it all back for his father, whom he adores. At 16, he leaves home, spurred by the need to avoid choosing which parent to live with after the divorce, and, well, he has to live somehow. Since he’s a smart kid, why not live off of being smart? Like Moll Flanders, Frank Jr. has that unquestioning drive to use whatever’s at hand.

He starts small, by forging checks. But not forging in the signing-someone-else’s-name sense. Forging in the manufacturing-bogus-payroll-checks sense. And where does the enterprising young forger come by the detailed information needed to succeed? He asks. He just employs his natural charm and his polite home-raising to learn what he needs, whether by flirtatiously chatting up a teller, or by pretending to be a reporter for a high school newspaper. And everybody is willing to give it up to him because, well, he’s such a nice young man. Eventually he’s so successful at check fraud that his activities attract the attention of FBI Agent Hanratty (Hanks), a financial crimes specialist who’s all about his job. The remainder of the movie is all about the cat-and-mouse between Abagnale and Hanratty, and the personal relationship that develops between them.

It may be difficult to believe Abagnale’s cons in these hardened times. It’s barely credible that there was a time, not so long ago, when people would provide all manner of information if you were polite and curious, that even bank employees weren’t habituated to react with suspicion to questions about bank operations. Yet in a way, his successful cons are part of the film’s good feeling. In days when the government can eyeball our book purchases and library reading habits and use our neighbors and cable guys to inform on our doings, who couldn’t use a good caper movie about picking up information and using it to individual advantage?

Abagnale keeps meeting clandestinely with his dad and trying to give him lavish presents, which Frank Sr. must refuse, due to the ongoing IRS oversight. To think “Christopher Walken,” is to think “fine actor,” but restraint, tenderness, and poignancy aren’t generally what come to mind. His performance here, as a former big-fish-in-a-small-pond who’s now just another working stiff, is so very moving. DiCaprio is very good as the young grifter who likes the crazy money, but who also just wants his family back like it was. Lest you think it’s all about the father-son stuff, though, let me add that Catch Me If You Can is dead funny. Tom Hanks’ FBI man is hilarious, one of these tunnel-visioned geeks we’ve all had experience of. Just watching him walk, even, was amusing, he was so deeply in touch with his inner nerd. I had rather hoped that there’d be no backstory on Hanratty, that he’d be free of a troublous personal life and hidden motivations, but that, apparently, was too hard to resist. It doesn’t detract too much, but I have to take off points for that. It’s also fun to watch Martin Sheen playing against type as a florid Southern lawyer and pillar of New Orleans society.

It’s no giveaway that Abagnale was eventually caught, and served some time. And then Hanratty, realizing that poachers make the best gamekeepers, brought Frank Abagnale to the FBI, to serve out his time using his skill and experience to help catch paperhangers.

There are some great visuals in the movie. Scenes of parents dancing together; a flying dollar bill, floating like that feather in Forrest Gump. My favorite is the shadows of the window blinds, like bars across Frank’s face as he realizes what a prison an 8-to-5 job is. Today, Abagnale makes a very comfortable living as a consultant to check security companies.

This is pretty funny stuff. Not deathless cinema, but definitely a good ROI for your $8.00. See how much fun we can have when directors don’t swing for the fences?

— Roxanne Bogucka


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