Leonardo DiCaprio has no trouble finding work, as “Catch Me If You Can” marks his second major movie release this week. Some people were disappointed with “Gangs of New York,” and some will find Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” to also be a letdown. There’s not much to anticipate, we see in the very beginning that the main character has been caught and is on his way back to the United States with his captor. But we’re not looking to see if he escapes or not, we just want to see what events led up to his arrest. We want to know how he left the United States in the first place. The end result will please some, but leave others shortchanged.
Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a cunning 16-year old who is close with his family. They appear picture perfect. Frank dances with his mother (Nathalie Baye) to record playing tunes while taking advice from his equally-clever father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken). The movie takes place in the early 1960’s, where families were naturally close and homegrown. But this family is soon torn apart. Frank Sr.’s business is under investigation by the IRS, and the parents eventually divorce. The gradual breakdown, including the move from house to apartment before the divorce catches up to Frank, so he runs away instead of choosing one of his parents to be his legal guardian.
He realizes that he has no job, no money, and no place to go. He’s a kid on the streets without an idea in his head. While walking through the city, he sees an airline pilot being escorted by a couple of flight attendants. He sees the glamour in being a pilot, and decides he will become one too. How does he achieve this? That’s the fun in this movie. From here on out, it’s all acts of deception and trickery that are fun to watch and are often hilarious to witness. In one scene, a prostitute thinks she is being paid for her services on Frank, when she is the one paying him. He becomes a check forger, which is his source of income (millions of dollars) that allows him to buy dressy clothes and fancy sports cars. He creates a fake diploma that lands him a job as the supervising ER physician in a down-town hospital. This of course, happens after he quits his job as an airline pilot, where he traveled around the country at no charge.
The bogus checks end up on the desk of FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), a serious cop dedicated to his job, but isn’t afraid to tell a joke or two, one of them catching the entire audience off guard. He begins to track Frank down, and in the process forms a bond with him. The movie often cuts from present to past, with the actual story taking place in the past, so you already know the outcome of the chase. What you don’t know, is how their relationship will evolve, and what will be the ultimate fate of both Frank and Carl.
Carl is determined to catch Frank, as his career is put above all else including his own family, but he begins to realize that Frank is nothing more than a lost child. He even gets a phone call from him on a Christmas Eve, starting a new tradition that would take place every year. Carl calls his bluff and yells, “You called me because you have no one else to call!” This digs up the old idea saying that you can have everything in this world, but without anyone, you really have nothing.
“Catch Me If You Can” is powered by a familiar cast, including Martin Sheen, a district attorney who comes close to uncovering Frank’s identity. Frank is engaged to his daughter Brenda (Amy Adams), and is questioned when it is revealed that he is both a doctor and a lawyer, when he clearly looks no older than thirty. The quiz resembles a level of uneasiness not seen since “Meet The Parents.” Sheen is good, but his presence is short. DiCaprio is better here than in “Gangs of New York,” although this role demanded much less. The same applies for Carl, as Tom Hanks was overcasted as the FBI agent with little confidence. My favorite in this one is Christopher Walken, whose modest acceptance of his son’s new lifestyle has an awe to it that I couldn’t completely figure out.
“Catch Me If You Can” is a long movie at 2 hours and 20 minutes, but I enjoyed every second of Frank’s comical mischief. The ending is rushed a little, in order to fit in some last minute scams, but nothing is left out, nor do we ever care much for explanations (Near the end, he is somehow the lone occupier of a large printing press in France). Sometimes the pranks are pulled off too easily, as if Frank should have been caught many times before getting the chance to slip away.
I wonder if Frank would have been able to do that today on an account of more advanced technology such as digital watermarks on checks. Could the real Frank forge checks and create his own college diplomas today? Could he walk into a school and reserve an auditorium to stage interviews for a stewardess employment program?
“Catch Me If You Can” is of course based on a true story, as it would be too farfetched and unrealistic for a fiction screenplay. While this film won’t be remembered as a Spielberg masterpiece, it is a movie to wind down to before the new year, and a great way to finish off 2002. Some people will leave the theater feeling cheated, as if expecting something more of a twist from the plot or more substance from the story, like something from Spielberg’s “Minority Report” or DiCaprio’s “Gangs of New York.” But “Catch Me If You Can” is Spielberg’s way of relaxing; treating us to a great film with seemingly little effort. How many directors can do that today?