The larky “Catch Me if You Can” is like a trot around the track for the thoroughbreds involved, and one of the results is that it takes them far too long to get to the finish line. A good 40 minutes too long, this amiable account of the true story of teenage con man Frank Abagnale Jr. is a case in which the talented players could have won big had they cashed out much earlier; you can literally feel the returns diminishing the longer the game is extended. All the same, this DreamWorks release remains more likeable than not, and prospect of seeing Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks in a breezy entertainment directed by Steven Spielberg will be irresistible to mainstream moviegoers, spelling high-flying, if not gangbuster, B.O.
Abagnale’s autobiographical book recounts a youth so fantastic that it’s amazing it took Hollywood 20 years to get around to putting it on the screen. Reeling from his beloved parents’ divorce, the 16-year-old left home and discovered talents for survival that he readily turned into a genius for scamming. Playing out a string for an amazing five years, Abagnale successfully passed himself off as a Pan Am co-pilot, surgeon and lawyer while becoming a true master in one field in particular — that of writing bad checks.
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Although the film reps a lightweight breather between the darker and more grandiose projects Spielberg is taking on these days, there may also lurk a personal connection for the director with the subject of the film. After all, at the very same time Abagnale was pulling his stunts, the teenage Spielberg was dressing in coat and tie and trying to palm himself off as an executive on the Universal lot, a ploy that paid off when he got a TV directing gig by age 21.
Setting a fizzy mood via some very mid-’60s animated opening credits and a jazzy John Williams theme that harks back to his “Johnny” Williams days as pianist for Henry Mancini’s orchestra, pic gets off to a jaunty start as DiCaprio’s Abagnale is introduced as one of three contestants on the venerable gameshow “To Tell the Truth.” Unfortunately, neither is the mood consistently maintained nor is the climax of the TV show ever shown.
After beginning with a framing scene of FBI Special Agent Carl Hanratty (Hanks) coming to return Abagnale from his Marseilles prison cell to the U.S. in 1969, action flips back six years to New Rochelle, N.Y. Local businessman Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) is a romantic, better at dreaming and scheming than at supporting his family. His proudest achievement is having brought back a French girl (Nathalie Baye) as his bride after WWII, so both he and his son are brought low when her infidelity triggers divorce, a matter exacerbated by dad’s troubles with the IRS.
Early scene that foreshadows young Frank’s abilities as an imposter, and clinches the audience’s willingness to believe in them, has him arriving at a new high school and taking advantage of an instructor’s absence to pose as the substitute French teacher, an act he gets away with for a week. Once he flees home, it’s unclear exactly how he copes, but a set of circumstances and a burst of ingenuity lead him to be fitted for a Pan Am pilot’s uniform and to forge payroll checks that provide him a handsome income and the ability to ride in the cockpits of other airlines’ jets. His good looks and suave manner make it easy for him to acquire a bevy of stewardesses, enabling him to emulate the James Bond lifestyle he explicitly admires.
The FBI is on to Abagnale before long, but he proves remarkably elusive. Even when Hanratty corners the “Skyway Man,” gun drawn, in a Hollywood hotel room, Abagnale is able to turn the tables on his pursuer and slip away to continue his spree, this time in Atlanta.
Inspired by the trust and help of Brenda (Amy Adams), a naive candy striper, Abagnale transforms himself into a doctor and finds himself appointed head of the night staff at a hospital, meaning he also gets to select the nurses. Studying his new profession by watching “Dr. Kildare” on TV, “Dr. Connors” no more performs surgery than he ever flew planes, but he comes to care for Brenda enough to propose to her and meet her parents in New Orleans, where her dad (Martin Sheen) is District Attorney.
Ever more audacious, Abagnale insists that not only is he a doctor, but a lawyer as well. In order to go to work for Brenda’s father, he takes the Louisiana bar exam after two weeks of studying and, in the feat that most confounds Hanratty years later, passes it. Still, the jig is soon up and, having run up some $4 million in fraud, he admits to his father, “I want this to be over.”
Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (the “Rush Hour” pics) might have taken this as a cue to begin wrapping things up themselves, but instead elaborate a great deal of follow-up material to more-is-less effect.
Info about how Abagnale, under Hanratty’s tutelage, came to become a check fraud expert for the FBI after serving but part of his prison sentence is interesting and satisfyingly ironic, but could have been dispensed in a fraction of the time. Ultimately, the film pays for the excess baggage it takes on, suggesting this would have been a very good occasion for Spielberg to make his first under-two-hour film since “E.T.”
Lively and appealingly retro as the picture may be, it has other problems as well. Attempt to give the story more dimensions than provided by the outlandish narrative result in a wobbly tone. While Abagnale’s love for his father and evident desire to succeed where the older man has failed provides plausible psychological motivation for the son’s exploits, the darkening of their relationship as the story progresses adds little and sidelines the narrative at times.
Also uncertain is the handling of the young playboy’s feelings about women; a scene in which he pretends to pay a glamorous hooker (“Alias” star Jennifer Garner) big bucks for a night of fun has an aspect of deliberately heightened fantasy, while his true feelings about Brenda can only be guessed at.
More vexing still are the film’s visuals. Due to the cues received from the opening credits, the era involved and the serio-comic approach, the viewer could reasonably expect a high-gloss studio look in the manner of a Blake Edwards picture of the period; a bright, artificially polished style would have just added to the fun.
Instead, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski eschews old-school elegance for gobs of blown backlight cascading through windows and other sources, even to the point of obscuring faces in the foregrounds. No one in Hollywood shot movies in this fashion until the ’70s, and the disjuncture here provides a big disappointment given the possibilities for period precision provided by the diverse locations, Jeannine Oppewall’s resourceful production design and Mary Zophres’ costumes.
DiCaprio’s winning performance goes a long way toward encouraging the viewer the forgive the film its indulgences and missteps. Still boyish looking enough to more or less pass as a 16-year-old in the early scenes, the star uses his confidence as a performer to convince Abagnale’s dupes and the audience that the character is capable of everything he’s doing onscreen.
Charming, clean-cut and blessing his con man with an optimism that assumes the best possible outcome no matter how dire the dilemma, DiCaprio betrays not a speck of the sullenness he exhibited in “Celebrity” and “The Beach,” nor the stoic toughness he used in “Gangs of New York.”
From his black-suit-and-tie uniform to his hat and glasses and constant bedevilment, Hanks reminds pleasantly of Jack Lemmon at times in his resourceful and energetic turn as the long arm of the law.
In a wonderful performance, Walken summons up his character’s modest roots, romantic spirit, caring fatherly instincts and dashed hopes with exceptional economy of means, and relative newcomer Adams is a warm presence as the sympathetic fool who falls for the cool young “doctor.”