The same wide-eyed boyishness that infects so many of Steven Spielberg's films makes Catch Me If You Can's tale of grand-scale larceny and graft feel as wholesome as a Cub Scout Jamboree.
Inspired by real events and heavily sugared by the persistent lost-child fixations of Spielberg's own imagination, Catch Me concerns teenage con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio). Frank's not yet out of high school when he responds to his parents' divorce by fleeing to Manhattan and performing one of those self-invention jobs the city is famous for.
Catching a glimpse of a handsome airline pilot shepherding a clutch of giggling stewardesses into a Manhattan hotel, the impressionable Frank embarks on a consummately '60s-era Hugh Hefner-style fantasy. Like almost every one of his criminal masquerades, Frank's impersonation of a Pan Am flyboy has its basis in family tragedy. He watched his father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken), lose his dishy wife to a richer man, so Frank Jr. wises up to the allure of money and power where women -- and life -- are concerned.
Catch Me is often a provocative glimpse into how manhood is constructed and the thin line that separates a con from a charmer. And if it didn't so completely sugarcoat its un-ironically fake view of the '60s, this might be a very cynical film about how much money and graft can buy in our society, and how intrinsically sex appeal and self-worth are tied to money. But Spielberg isn't the kind of cerebral director capable of such sustained critique. His is a superficial view of the con that puts a thrill-ride, mad-capped spin on Frank's criminal impersonations -- of a pilot, an Atlanta pediatrician and a New Orleans lawyer.
Much of this idyllic fiction feels as much like the seepage of Spielberg's own consciousness as Frank's. Spielberg's belief in imagination as an escape from dull reality is evident in this account of a Peter Pan who escapes the harsher realities of adulthood by taking his cue from the media and masquerading as the kind of adults whose occupations are drenched in sexual potency and power.
For this overgrown kid, airplane pilots really are the height of glamour, but nobody pulls at the heartstrings like dear old Dad. Walken is galvanic as a defeated former Rotary-club hotshot who still maintains his sense of pride and entitlement and lives a vicarious war against the establishment through his criminal son. The literal father/son relationship is far more compelling than the symbolic one that commands a greater amount of screen time in the daddy/son chase between Frank and the FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), which eventually comes to dominate the story.
Hanks is not only unlikable as the dogged agent trying to crash Frank's check forging party, he is distinctly unpleasant, egomaniacal and humorless -- a weird combination of the scary government men of E.T. and the more cuddly character Spielberg seems to want him to be.
Though Spielberg has never been an introspective director, Catch Me If You Can in some regards feels like his most autobiographical and revealing work -- about the seductive allure of following your desires, as well as the grime of obsessiveness and escape from reality involved in living within that web of dreams.
Despite Spielberg's often-glossy treatment of a bad case of teen angst, DiCaprio invests Frank Jr. with a compelling mix of obnoxious kiddo boasting and tragic vulnerability. There is some smart stuff hidden beneath the usual expertly crafted Spielberg entertainment machinery. But had it been more thoughtfully developed, rather than treated to screenwriter Jeff Nathanson's (Rush Hour 2, Speed 2) keep-the-ball moving pace, it might have made for a more interesting film.
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