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Catcher in the Lie


Catch Me If You Can

Steven Spielberg, USA, 2002

Rating: 3.5



Posted: December 28, 2002

By Laurence Station

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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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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