Catcher in the Lie
Me If You Can
Steven Spielberg, USA, 2002
Posted: December 28,
Confidence man Frank Abagnale spent the better part of the 1960s
cashing millions of dollars worth of fraudulent checks, impersonating
professions ranging from medical doctor to airline pilot, and cavalierly
scamming his way around the world. That he did all of this for over half a
decade before finally getting caught is amazing. Even more remarkable is
the fact that he was all of 21 when his luck finally ran out.
Abagnale's book about his wild ride had been floating around Hollywood
since the '80s: What good fortune for the former scam artist that three of
Tinseltown's heaviest hitters have finally brought his heady yarn of "fun
and profit" (to quote his autobiography) to light: Director Steven
Spielberg, Leonardo DiCaprio as the young Abagnale and Tom Hanks as an
composite of various FBI agents who pursued him over the years -- A dream
team if ever there was one.
Oddly enough, DiCaprio, of the three principals, shows the best
understanding of how to approach the material: Horny young teenager
utilizes his wits and charm to score millions, get laid and travel the
world for free. DiCaprio does the best work of his career inhabiting the
almost childlike, "I can't believe I'm getting away with this" persona of
Frank: His devil-may-care approach to Abagnale's adventurous attitude and
swinging playboy pose are remarkably realized. Hanks, meanwhile, manages
to imbue Agent Hanratty, his character's one-dimensional straight man,
with a depth of feeling that, while not essential to the story, does add
color and richness to the proceedings; it's a laudable acting feat, Hanks'
garbled, quasi-Bostonian accent notwithstanding.
Catch Me If You Can also looks and sounds great, courtesy of longtime Spielberg
collaborators cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky and composer John Williams.
Surprisingly, Spielberg proves the film's main drawback. Rather than
keep his focus on the "fun and profit" angle, zipping around the world
with Frank, the director instead concentrates on an issue that has proven
central to his body of work: the dissolution of the nuclear family. A lot
of time and energy is spent establishing that Frank turned to a life of
crime because his parents divorced when he was 16. Thus we get lots of
scenes of Frank Sr. (capably handled by Christopher Walken) lamenting the
loss of his wife (Nathalie Baye) to former good friend and Rotary Club
President Jack Barnes (James Brolin).
Spielberg works overtime to drive home the point that Frank might have
used his moxie and smarts for something positive had his mother and father
simply been able to work things out. That Spielberg's own parents split up
when he was a teenager clearly influenced the director's interest in this
angle, but he's done a better job for lonely, disaffected youth in films
like E.T. and Empire of the Sun. If the real Abagnale had
any deeper motivation for what he did other than money or girls, it
stemmed from his father's problems with the I.R.S. and a desire to get
back at what he perceived as a bullying government, more than any
emotional fallout from his parents' divorce.
Having Abagnale and Hanratty form a bond over the years -- complete
with yearly phone calls on Christmas Eve -- is another Spielberg touch
that drains energy from what should have been a short and breezy
cat-and-mouse feature. On the upside, he does underline just how far
Abagnale was able to get in his cons via simple human kindness toward his
unwitting marks. Catch Me If You Can is most fascinating when we
get to see Abagnale in action, from seducing bank tellers and prying
information from all too willing stewardesses to forging documents with
enterprising skill or talking his way out of potentially thorny situations
via a well-chosen rejoinder.
What we don't get is the thrill of the chase the title promises.
There's never any sustained feeling that Hanratty is nipping at Frank's
heels. There are close encounters, certainly, but these come too few and
far between to build any real suspense. Naturally Frank does eventually
get caught, spends time in a medieval-looking French prison, and is
ultimately extradited back to the States where the Feds promptly offer him
a job helping to nab check forgers. Spielberg extends the film twenty
minutes longer than he needs to by assuring us that Frank has indeed
learned his lesson, using his talents for good rather than personal gain.
Ever the optimist, he's determined to show his subject overcoming a
traumatic family life to triumph in the end.
In the final analysis, Catch Me If You Can gets caught in a lie
of its own making, advertising a light chase vehicle between clever con
and determined fed but serving up a too-easy examination of the
potentially far-reaching, detrimental effects of divorce. In this
particular case, the victim -- Frank, Jr. -- lives a glamorous life of
crime, riches and romance, serves a few years in prison and goes on to
make even more money as a public speaker and security consultant. Not bad
for a kid from a broken home, eh, Steve?
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