Steven Spielberg’s new picture is this year’s equivalent of Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven.” In that case a director who’d achieved recognition for relatively serious work, most notably “Traffic,” opted to remake a lighthearted caper movie from the 1960s. Now the world’s most successful director takes a break from a recent string of heavier fare, but this time not via one more Indiana Jones adventure or dinosaur epic; instead he offers a tale that hearkens back to another early-sixties piece, Robert Mulligan’s “The Great Impostor” (1961). That movie starred Tony Curtis as Ferdinand Demara, who successfully masqueraded in a variety of professions; “Catch Me If You Can,” also based on the experiences of a real person, traces the career of Frank Abagnale Jr., a New York youngster who, some forty years ago, posed as a pilot, a lawyer and a doctor while cashing more than two million dollars of fraudulent checks throughout the country and the world. It’s basically a glib but bouncy bit of sixties-style slickness in which the hero might wind up caught but the audience gets pure escapism; like Soderbergh’s picture it makes few intellectual demands and takes absolutely no chances but is supremely well-crafted and quite easy to take.
It also tries to cover virtually every base to appeal to the broadest slice of today’s moviegoing public. Older viewers will be delighted by the sprightly but old-fashioned tale of a lovable rogue relentlessly pursued by a single-minded cop who over time develops a paternalistic interest in his quarry. They’ll also like the fact that the picture is relentlessly clean–the closest it comes to the risque is a gag involving a greedy call-girl (in this context, even the word “prostitute” seems too harsh). They’ll enjoy the witty title sequence by Kuntzel+Deygas, which recalls the classic work of Saul Bass, and the references to TV Land-style television like “Perry Mason,” “Dr. Kildare” and “To Tell the Truth.” If they’re of a certain age and gender, they’ll probably smile at the memory of a Silver Age comic book like “The Flash.” And they’ll undoubtedly be attracted by the presence of Tom Hanks, the most unthreatening of today’s superstars, who gets to look paunchy and affect a raspy, nasal drone as Carl Hanratty, the workaholic FBI agent in traditional black suit and ultra-thin tie. Hanks isn’t really right for the role (it’s amusing to speculate who might have played it in an earlier era–maybe Glenn Ford or Jack Lemmon), but he certainly works hard at seeming to enjoy it.
On the other hand, in order to make the film palatable to the younger crowd, which might find the narrative too retrograde for their taste, Spielberg puts Leonardo DiCaprio center-stage as Abagnale. The “Titanic” heartthrob is really too old for the part: the kid performed his feats of chicanery between the ages of 16 and 21, while Leo was a relatively musty 27 when the picture was shot. But in fact he pulls it off wonderfully well. In the earliest scenes, before the legal problems of Abagnale’s father and his parents’ divorce cause the kid to run away to an eventual life of crime, Leo manages to be a convincing teen, even in an episode when the character, transferred to a new school, pretends to be a substitute teacher and fools everybody in an early example of his role-playing dexterity. Throughout the picture DiCaprio brings a disarming charm to Abagnale, making the character ingratiating rather than smug; it’s a matinee idol turn rather than a performance to put beside his early work in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” or “A Boy’s Life,” but it’s far preferable to his other more recent appearances, including “Gangs of New York.” The only other cast member who matches him is Christopher Walken as Abagnale Sr., the smooth but unsuccessful (and decidedly self-absorbed) con artist dad whom junior longs to impress but never quite does. Walken suggests depths in the senior Abagnale beyond what Jeff Nathanson’s script reveals; it’s a pity the narrative doesn’t use him more effectively. (The suggestion that Frank is driven to his activities by an adolescent need to reunite his divorced parents is a serious undercurrent to the tale that isn’t fully developed.) The rest of the cast are stuck in caricature roles, and play them that way; even Martin Sheen can’t do much as the father of a Southern belle (Amy Adams) whom young Frank nearly weds.
There are further problems with “Catch Me If You Can.” We’re never shown how Frank acquires his forgery expertise; going into this aspect of his development might have slowed things down a bit, but leaving it unexplained increases the implausibility level. At 140 minutes, moreover, the picture goes on too long; the last act, in which Carl springs Frank from prison to become a part of the FBI fraud unit, loses impetus, however necessary it might seem to round things off. John Williams’ score never manages to match the best sixties examples of musical whimsy (think Henry Mancini). Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography doesn’t successfully replicate the bright, glossy look of the pictures it’s trying to emulate. And if you’re going to start the film by depicting the beginning of Frank’s appearance on “To Tell the Truth,” it’s a bit of a cheat not to return at the end and disclose whether he was unmasked.
Nonetheless Spielberg’s picture is a mostly enjoyable throwback to an earlier cinematic era, a tribute which doesn’t quite equal its models but is still reasonably engaging. It’s a trifle, but an amusing one; and it gives DiCaprio the opportunity to shine in the sort of star vehicle that’s pretty rare on the ground nowadays.