17 March 2006 | slokes
Steven Spielberg has what you might call D.W. Griffith disease. If he can't make a monumental film, he makes an insignificant one. I thought that, anyway, until a second viewing of "Catch Me If You Can" convinced me I was wrong. Like many great artists, Spielberg doesn't have to swing for the fences to make an indelible impression every time out.
Indelible impressions are the sort of thing Frank Abagnale Jr. is good at, especially on the kind of phony checks that fool bank security. After his parents' divorce, Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) sets off in the Big Apple, making his way as an airline pilot, a doctor, and an assistant district attorney, all by means of fraudulent credentials and irresistible charm, not to mention the ability to stay one step ahead of the law, as represented by FBI Special Agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks).
A film that owes a debt to Alfred Hitchcock by way of Henry Mancini, "Catch Me If You Can" zips along on its own kind of sneaky charm, making us root for a character who would probably steal our life savings if given half a chance. At the same time, Spielberg avoids the pitfall of relativism by making sure Hanks as Hanratty keeps some amount of our rooting interest, however much we feel for this crazy kid with his naive belief that, like the mouse stuck in a bucket of cream, he can churn his bucket into butter and crawl out. It's a trick every bit worthy of the subject of this engaging tale.
From the opening moments of this film, featuring the best-ever Spielberg titles sequence (courtesy of Kuntzel-Deggas) and a very unusual but entrancing John Williams score that uses shushing sounds and finger snaps in place of his normal bombast, we realize we are in unusual territory for a Spielberg film. Right away, the theme of mistaken identity is introduced courtesy of a "To Tell The Truth" clip with host Joe Garagiola giving us three Frank Abagnales to choose from. We think we know which one he is, but we don't know as much as we think.
"You know why the Yankees always win?" asks Frank's father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken). "It's because the other team can't stop staring at those damn pinstripes." Walken, like Spielberg, works against audience expectations. Sure, he's a criminal, much what we expect from Walken, but he's got a good heart and a beguiling innocence. He believes in the American dream, even if he cons innocent ladies with phony jewelry to get what he wants. Ultimately he's a victim, and a lesson to his son about why the straight and narrow isn't the way to go.
DeCaprio gives a solid, impressive performance, the best I've seen from him, playing a consummate conman who succeeds because he believes his cons as much as his victims. He finds the drama in his character, but also the comedy, in a film that shows Spielberg can be funny even when he involves us in a dramatic story. As we watch him fake his way aboard a cockpit, in an operating room, and even in a bedroom with an expensive callgirl played by Jennifer Garner, we shake our heads at what he gets away with but smile because he's succeeding.
The film also benefits from an immersive sense of the period in which it is set. Williams' score, along with the costumes and set design, present us with a view of the 1960s in its more sophisticated adult form, with Dusty Springfield and Frank Sinatra providing the music rather than the pop and rock acts we think of when we think of the time.
Does "Catch Me If You Can" go on longer than it should? Yes, I think tougher editing would have made it better. But I don't miss the mawkish attempts at uplift that pock Spielberg's lesser work, and the few poignant moments Spielberg throws in amid Abagnale's ruses ring true, especially a moment involving Frank and a little girl at a window near the end of the film that only Spielberg would try to get away with, because he can and does.
No, this is not a great film, just a very good one that might have slipped past a few people on its first release, as it did me. But give "Catch Me If You Can" a chance, and you may find this as a con you not only enjoy being taken by, but wish to experience again just to see how the masters, Abagnale and Spielberg, make their plays.