DOES STEVEN SPIELBERG EVER GET TIRED of being Steven Spielberg? It must be exhausting to be the world's most successful filmmaker, whose every project becomes an Event — a commercial blockbuster starring run-amok dinosaurs, or a big-statement picture about World War II or about our alienated future. I'll bet he'd enjoy the chance to shed his fame and knock out a movie that's loose, easy and fun — his version of Ocean's Eleven.
The closest he's ever come is Catch Me If You Can, an enjoyable new romp that's unlike anything Spielberg has made before. Based on a breezy, vaguely sociopathic “memoir” by Frank W. Abagnale, it's the picaresque tale of a young man who's forever shucking off his identity in order to invent a new one.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Frank, a teenager who has a seemingly idyllic suburban existence with his elegantly cool French mother, Paula (Nathalie Baye), and his father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken), a smooth-talking businessman he worships. When things at home suddenly collapse, 16-year-old Frank runs off and creates a fanciful new life for himself. Over the next three years, he doesn't merely become a fabled “paperhanger,” fobbing off $4 million in bogus checks, but manages to pass himself off as a Pan Am co-pilot, a Harvard-educated doctor and an assistant D.A. in Louisiana. Such antics soon win him the attention of his own personal Javert, Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), a bespectacled FBI agent who's as straight as Frank is swervy. The very definition of plodding tortoisehood — there are no precogs to help him — this G-man pursues the haring Frank from Hollywood to New Orleans to Marseille.
Catch Me If You Can's opening minutes are a marvel of speedy assurance, from the playful animated credit sequence with its winking '60s spirit, through the use of a funny clip from the old TV show To Tell the Truth, to scenes of the Abagnales' home life, whose cliché perfection is betrayed by the wine stain on their living-room carpet. With a big boost from Jeannine Oppewall's groovy period production design, Spielberg makes things even giddier once Frank begins teaching himself the art of fraud. It's always a treat to watch con men in action — their shenanigans bring out the vicarious crook in almost everyone — and I've enjoyed few things more this year than watching Frank peel Pan Am stickers off model planes and put them on forged checks, or talk himself out of a hotel room when the feds appear to have him nailed.
While Frank's adventures lack the social complexity found in Jean-Jacques Audiard's A Self-Made Hero — about a cunning provincial who pretends to be a hero of the French Resistance — the movie bursts with the old-fashioned Hollywood panache so painfully missing from a dud like The Truth About Charlie. Indeed, there are hints of Lubitsch-style sophistication in the wonderful scene in which Frank, clad in a suit like the one he saw James Bond wearing in Goldfinger, has a romantic encounter with a foxy glamour-puss (Alias' Jennifer Garner) who says she's a former Seventeen cover girl. You wonder exactly who's conning who.
SPIELBERG IS OFTEN CRITICIZED FOR BEING afraid of “darkness,” but his work is actually shot through with an enormous amount of cruelty; there's nothing light about the way he works his characters over, both mentally and physically. The softness lies in his instinctive rejection of intellectual complexity. This is obvious in Catch Me If You Can, which is so busy portraying Frank as a sympathetic rogue that it doesn't bother to show the suffering he causes his victims; in fact, his deceived fiancée is depicted so comically that we don't really care about her pain. Rather than illuminate how his identity-swapping hero is both a charmer and a narcissistic monster (as Wendell Harris did in his neglected 1990 Sundance winner Chameleon Street), Spielberg lets us off the hook. We get to enjoy Frank's actions without registering their cost to anyone but Frank.
The movie's palette is awash in blues, and for all Frank's globe-trotting brio, his emotions are tinged that melancholy color, too. As so often happens in Spielberg, the film's deepest core of feeling springs from the lost paradise of the nuclear family. Frank's whole life is an attempt to regain what's been lost — the family's big Cadillac, the house in New Rochelle, the mother who's moved on to another man, and, above all, the imaginary grandeur of a father who's been broken by the IRS. Spielberg is too dutiful ever to make anything purely as a lark, and like Road to Perdition, this is ultimately a saga about fathers and sons, although it tackles the subject far more touchingly than Sam Mendes' grandiose film (also from DreamWorks), which never stopped telling you that it was Very Important.
As Frank Sr., Christopher Walken has been asked, for the first time in years, to play a human being, and he delivers an elegantly poignant turn as a charismatic man with the soul of an artist — he'd rather cling to ebullient delusions than wallow in the sad failure that he knows is his destiny. Early on, he makes his son impersonate his chauffeur in an attempt to secure a bank loan, the kind of trick the kid admires and will later emulate to perfection. Frank Jr. adores his old man (in moments of deep emotion, he movingly calls him “Daddy”) and dreams of seeing him back on his pedestal. Yet such loyalties are never so simple. Frank is also drawn to that other father figure, dogged Carl Hanratty, whose most distinctive feature may be his fedora. Hanratty is all the things that Frank Sr. is not — dry, honest, unyielding, dull — but he's brought to life by Hanks, one of the rare superstars who still has the power to surprise us. His crafty line readings (in a strong Boston accent) and throwaway facial expressions make this boring FBI agent as enjoyable to watch as any con man.
ALTHOUGH IT RUNS A QUARTER-HOUR TOO long — Spielberg himself can't escape treating his films as events — Catch Me If You Can is the director's lightest-hearted work since Raiders of the Lost Ark. And in recapturing an earlier sense of exuberance, it also marks the return from the living dead of Leonardo DiCaprio, who, before he washed up on The Beach as an international teen idol, was a screen actor to be reckoned with. A young-faced 28, he looks too old to be playing a 16-year-old kid, but what at first seems like miscasting eventually proves to be a smart choice, for part of Frank's success lies in looking older than he actually is. As an actor DiCaprio has long been known for his ardor, not to mention his tiresome self-seriousness, but working for Spielberg, he plays his scenes with a comic deftness I thought he didn't have in him. At once sweet and sly, naive and scheming, he makes Frank the most dashing teenage boy who ever flattered a girl in braces.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN | Directed by STEVEN SPIELBERG Written by JEFF NATHANSON | Produced by WALTER PARKES | Released by DreamWorks Pictures | Citywide