In this fact based account of con man Frank Abagnale Jr.’s escapades during the 60s, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a teenager who passes millions of dollars in forged checks while successfully impersonating a Pan Am pilot, a lawyer and a physician. It’s a first rate performance and a fun, freewheeling story, but even more fascinating is the sight of Steven Spielberg doing a convincing impression of Steven Soderbergh.
From its adrenalized editing and hip period score to the picture’s celebration of the good natured caper, “Catch Me If You Can” is so suggestive of the Ocean’s Eleven director’s style and sensibility, every time a door opened, I half expected George Clooney to walk through.
Clooney doesn’t come through any but Tom Hanks breaks down a few in the role of the indefatigable FBI agent who catches on to DiCaprio’s paper hanging exploits and pursues him throughout the U.S. and abroad over a period of several years.
At its heart, though, this is a story about how fathers figure into the lives of sons. It’s about the significance of father figures, too. DiCaprio’s character worships the ground his old man-a colorful con artist in his own right-walks on even after the IRS catches up to him, his wife leaves and his sanity little by little slips away. A Christopher Walken character with a screw or two loose is nothing new, of course, but the director succeeds in drawing from the actor a performance distinguished by a poignancy and depth that surpass anything he’s done previously. It’s nice to see.
The kid’s motivation for embarking on a life of crime, in fact, is a sense that he owes it to his father to “get it all back.” He labors under the delusion that, if he flimflams his way to a fortune, he’ll somehow be in a position to put his family back together.
If he fails in that regard, he’s wildly successful in just about every other. The film does a delicious job of depicting the character’s evolution from penniless runaway to one of the most accomplished con artists in history. That said, it’s a tad more generous with detail in the early innings than it is later in the game.
While the audience is allowed to follow, step by step, the process through which DiCaprio figures out how to forge convincing Pan Am payroll checks, it’s left in the dark when it comes to methods used to pull off more elaborate ploys during the second and third acts. The signature sequence, for example, in which he escapes detection by agents and police at an airport by surrounding himself with an entourage of eye-catching young stewardesses is amusing but begs a number of questions:
Spielberg shows a uniformed Leonardo addressing a high school auditorium filled with eager girls and offering the opportunity for a dozen or so of them to take part in a recruitment promotion, which will require them to spend time overseas. A moment later he’s gliding through the terminal, camouflaged by them, though no explanation has been given as to where he found uniforms to fit the group or why the school would have excused students from class without confirming the legitimacy of the arrangement with Pan Am much less how it could have been that parents permitted their daughters to leave school and jet to Europe without proof of any kind that things were on the up and up.
More than compensating for minor missteps, however, is the whole storyline dealing with the relationship that develops between Hanks and DiCaprio over the years they play intercontinental cat and mouse. I mentioned father figures because essentially that’s what the FBI man becomes in the eyes of DiCaprio’s character over time. As Walken fades away, Hanks’ way of life comes into ever clearer emotional focus. The final twist the relationship takes is a great, gratifying surprise.
This isn’t the Spielberg of “Schindler’s List” or Amistad, clearly. This isn’t even the Spielberg of “Jurassic Park.” The director’s latest reveals an entirely new dimension of adult playfulness and his sense of fun and good humor are contagious. We aren’t talking Oscar here. We’re talking truly fine performances and an unexpectedly hep John Williams score. We are talking a story that rollicks with the most rollicking of them. Not great cinema; just a great time at the movies and certainly a film well worth catching if you can.