Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me if You Canis the engaging true life story of a master con-artist, one Frank Abagnale (Leonardo Di Caprio), based on his autobiographical book that details the series of deceptions in which he engaged and his long term game of cat-and-mouse played with the FBI.

Abagnale idolized his parents and their divorce was traumatic for him. His father’s business failures and ongoing problems with the IRS didn’t knock him off the pedestal on which Frank had placed him. Achieving his father’s approval was an important motivation for him; his father’s own vaguely shady subterfuges (such as trying to bluff himself into a bank loan) provided a model on which junior later excelled.

Even in high school, with little to be gained but a moment’s revenge on a bully, Frank manages to impersonate a substitute French teacher for a week. He was obviously gifted with powerful skills both of observation and impersonation.

But young Abagnale went further than schoolroom pranks. By impersonating an airline pilot, he was able to "deadhead," i.e., get a free ticket on any airline going anywhere, a privilege evidently extended to all pilots. Even that was relatively harmless; it was his rapidly developed skills forging and cashing checks that put the FBI on his trail. He also used his charms on women, both innocent and not so innocent; there’s a funny scene where he cons a high-priced hooker who’s after his business. He also worked as a doctor in an emergency room and a lawyer in New Orleans without any genuine qualifications whatever.

Director Stephen Spielberg exercises his always notable gift for narrative filmmaking here; his story is told without a word of voiceover, but with a honed sense of how to recount both the events and the points he wishes to make about those events in visual and dramatic terms. There’s not a single special effect, there’s nothing flashy–not a moment of the director asserting his presence on the screen, as has become common practice in recent years. Spielberg has not solved his problem of longwindedness, however–Catch Me If You Can, at 140 minutes, runs a half hour longer than was necessary or justified by its content.

The tension at the heart of the film is in how long Abagnale can get away with his crimes. FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) is portrayed as rather nerdy even in that agency of dark suits and straight arrows. He’s humorless, but he’s also smart and dedicated and determined to get his man. Abagnale not only stays a step ahead of him for a long time, but also teases him with Christmas Eve phone calls and offers to surrender. Over time Hanratty, himself divorced and without a family, realizes that Abagnale also is missing a family; their connection ultimately takes on overtones of a father/son relationship.

Speilberg includes a running theme on the powerful influence of television. Not only is there an opening sequence in which Abagnale appears on "To Tell the Truth" (complete with an appearance by Kitty Carlisle, the still active one-time panel member from forty years ago),but he has his hero learning to be a physician from Dr. Kildare and an attorney from Perry Mason.

DiCaprio (The Beach, Titanic) displays all his boyish charm to great effect here and it’s laced with the intelligence that Abagnale obviously must have in order to accomplish what he did. Hanks (Road to Perdition, Cast Away) underplays Hanratty, giving him the tone of a highly motivated, hard-nosed guy who turns out to be a decent human being. Christopher Walken (America’s Sweethearts, Joe Dirt), as Frank Sr., turns in his usual on-the-money performance, here getting a richer character to portray than has too often been the case for him. Martin Sheen as a potential father-in-law has a thinly developed role and wonderful Nathalie Baye (An Affair of Love) as Frank’s mother is underused in little more than a cameo appearance. The animated main titles should earn an Academy Award nomination; they’re the cleverest and most amusing of the year.

Arthur Lazere

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San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.