Catch Me If You Can

I was expecting a catchy, entertaining piece of work from Mr. Spielberg this time around, based primarily on the sharply cut, thoroughly delightful trailer that’s been recently making the rounds. It turns out that I got more, much more than I bargained for. “Catch” is another testament to the effortless mastery of moviemaking that Spielberg possesses; the pleasures here are rich and varied, and while some viewers will be more than happy to simply sit back and delight at the exploits of the film’s teen age con man extraordinaire, others will be moved by the tinge of sadness and despair that weaves its way into his story.

“Catch Me” is the story of Frank Abagnale, who grows up in a loving home seeking the approval of his dad who, as portrayed with great ferocity by Christopher Walken, has more than a few problems of his own. The parent’s marriage slowly falls apart, and when Frank is forced to face the nasty truth about his family he escapes, literally assuming the identities of people he imagines his father would approve of, if only they were real. The reality is that Frank cons everyone so convincingly that he eventually travels the world in high style, impersonating a commercial airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, all by the age of 19, cashing forged checks and living it up with plenty of wine, women and song, while constantly on the run from the feds. But however great the deception, Frank’s exploits are a futile attempt at repairing his broken home.

Seeking the approval of a father who fails to see Frank’s despair, another father figure takes shape in the form of FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks, solid as ever), a man who develops a bond with the young man he’s relentlessly tracking. Can Carl help Frank learn to stop running from the world and face up to the demons in his lifer And can Frank stop running once he’s reached the point where there appears to be no turning back, no matter how many people he’s hurtingr The fun is finding the answers in life’s little details, and Spielberg delivers these telling moments effortlessly and with aplomb, providing plenty of laughs while exploring Frank’s alienation and resentment of his messed up home life.

It’s up to Leonardo DiCaprio to pull us through Frank’s story, and he does a compelling job of showing us both the cocky, self assured con man, and the scared, broken hearted boy lurking somewhere inside. Tom Hanks really sinks his teeth into the initially bewildered Fed, and Christopher Walken does some of his best work ever as Frank’s charismatically flawed father.

Spielberg perfectly captures the mood and time of the 60’s, and the picture has several classic sequences, including a dazzling opening title sequence that sets time and place beautifully (reminiscent of Saul Bass’s best work), a fabulous melding of current and vintage footage (Frank is humorously portrayed as a guest on “To Tell The Truth” and it looks absolutely real), and a dizzying sequence showing Frank distracting the Feds in the Miami Airport with the help of some Stewardesses in training. Another hilarious bit revolves around a financial arrangement made by a high class call girl (Jennifer Garner) to Frank, leading to a double deception that is truly inspired and laugh out loud funny.

I reveal nothing by explaining it’s revealed in the opening moments that Frank will be captured. One of the joys of the film is that despite this knowledge and the movie’s flashback structure , we never feel sure where the story is headed to next. Eventually Frank understands the damage he’s inflicting on himself and those he loves. It’s a dilemma that eats away at him, and he looks to agent Hanratty for help, sort of. I haven’t mentioned Hanks too much, but he is so strong here and it brings me great joy to see him willingly take the secondary character (make no mistake, Leo is in nearly every frame and it is ultimately his show). He’s a fantastic foil to Leonardo, and when Leo runs one final time, his conversation with Hanks in an airport terminal is simply fabulous; sincere, but not cloyingly so; it feels real, and the actors sell the moment completely. There’s great work here by both actors.

“Catch Me If You Can” is a great ride. And Spielberg himself has had quite a year. The expectations placed on the man by the critical community are ridiculous. Both “A.I.” and “Minority Report” were harshly criticized for their length and the belief that the endings were unnecessary and self indulgent (I disagree, especially with “Minority Report”). The ending of Catch could suffer the same ignorant bashing; I hope not, because Spielberg is saying something in the film’s coda about crime, celebrity, and the American way that elevates the film to a greater level. The bottom line is this: If any other filmmaker released two films of the quality of “Minority Report” and “Catch Me If You Can” in the same year, they would be anointed the new king of Hollywood, the Oscar Nominations would be reigning down on them, and you’d never hear the end of it (think Soderbergh of late). It’s a testament to Spielberg’s greatness that these films don’t get the kudos they so justly deserve. I can’t think of a more wildly entertaining experience at the movies this year than “Minority Report,” and now here comes “Catch,” which is the most fun you’ll have at the movies all winter long. Congrats all around.

Rating: A