The previews for Steven Spielberg's caper comedy are off the mark one-hundred
percent. I was led to believe that this was a comedy-drama with thrills every
second. I thought it was about the excitement of trying to catch up with a con
man on the loose with the FBI on his tail. Well, "Catch Me if You Can" has such
moments but this is not a thriller or a comedy in the strictest sense of the
words - this is a drama with comical innuendoes. In many ways, it is one of the
nicest surprises of 2002.
Inspired by a true story, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank Abagnale, Jr., a
16-year-old teenager with two supposedly loving parents. Christopher Walken
plays Frank Sr., who has trouble maintaining house payments and keeping his wife
faithful. His French wife, Paula (Nathalie Baye), leaves after a divorce
proceeding and Frank Jr. has to choose between the two. Instead, Frank Jr. runs
away. This is after Frank had impersonated a substitute teacher for two weeks at
the very school where he was attending as a student!
At the age of sixteen, Frank Jr. successfully impersonated an airline pilot, a
doctor and a lawyer. During all that time, he forges checks of up to 4 million
dollars, gets to travel all around the world, almost gets married to a naive
nurse, stays in luxurious hotels, eats at the finest restaurants, and fools
everyone along the way with constant variations on his name. But someone is not
so easily fooled. Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) is the FBI agent on his trail who is
convinced that the checks being forged are the work of a sixteen-year-old con
man. His foolproof theories are met with initial reluctance by other agents,
particularly when Carl mentions that the routing numbers on the checks are
indicative of which state Frank is residing in.
Frank's reasoning for his criminal activities is that he wants to help his
father and mother enjoy their lives, offering free flights and free Cadillacs.
Frank Sr. can't be seen with a Cadillac considering he owes the IRS so much
money. Curiously, the opening scenes of Frank Sr. trying to get a loan from a
bank may insinuate that junior's cons are hereditary. Another scene shows Frank
Sr. trying to get a black suit for his son at a dress shop. The shop hasn't
opened for business yet but Frank manages to persuade the owner to open by
holding a gold necklace (he claims she lost it in the parking lot). This trick
is later repeated by junior in other cons.
"Catch Me If You Can" does not easily fit into a thriller mode or a comedy mode
or a dramatic mode. Spielberg seems to be pulling strings everywhere, merely
toying with us and conning us every step of the way. In a way, one can enjoy
Frank's cons and ability to fool people (my favorite moment is when he convinces
Hanratty that he is a Secret Service man) but the film is not merely about
conning. On the other hand, one can see this as a comedy-drama but the comedy is
lightweight (the film is not really meant to be funny) and the drama is directed
not with a sledgehammer of sentimentality (as is sometimes the case with the
Spielman) but with minimalist, implicit style. No performance aims to go over
the top in this movie. DiCaprio, who gives the finest, most relaxed performance
of his career, exudes the right touch of bravado, cleverness and wit. He can
seem sad, romantic, desperate, suave (when he dresses like James Bond),
enthusiastic and debonair - whenever he is in a tight spot of trouble, he is a
quick thinker and eludes any suspicions of whom he pretends to be. One priceless
sequence has Abagnale at his fiancee's parents' house. The girl's father (Martin
Sheen) asks Abagnale what he does for a living. Mistakenly, he responds he is a
doctor and a lawyer and that he graduated from the father's same alma mater.
When Sheen asks about a professor's dog, Abagnale responds: "The dog died."
Christopher Walken walks tall in this movie, and gives a towering performance of
controlled pain and regret as Abagnale's father. One can't help but feel
sympathy towards him when he says to his son: "They will never catch you" or
"Frank, I had to take the train to work. I can't be seen with a Cadillac." His
early scenes reminded me of Harvey Keitel's con artist in the underrated
"Imaginary Crimes," but then we realize this character has made mistakes in his
choices. Perhaps he was not such a con man as he first appeared to be (whether
he is a con man or not is unclear). This is Walken at his most piercing, giving
his most heartrending performance since "The Dead Zone." I want to see an Oscar
nomination for this man.
For once, Tom Hanks plays a serious, cartoonish goofball, a "Dragnet"-like FBI
man who is as straight as an arrow. He is unable to crack much of a smile, and
when he pooh-poohs fellow agents with a crude knock-knock joke, I could not help
but laugh. His reaction shots are excellent and perfectly-timed, especially when
he narrowly loses Abagnale at every opportunity. Hanks's best rection shot is
when he almost traps Abagnale at an airport, using Frank's fiancee as bait. A
young man is seated in a car with a pilot's hat and when he turns out to be a
limo driver holding Hanratty's name, I was laughing hysterically. Hanks, the
righteous Everyman of Hollywood, propagates a comic flair that is as breathless
as any of his dramatic roles. I wish he was this freewheeling in the "Dragnet"
remake from long ago.
As "Catch Me If You Can" ended, I could not help but feel that Spielberg has
matured greatly from his Hollywood wunderkind days. Ever since "Schindler's
List," he has given us "Amistad," "Saving Private Ryan," "A.I.," and the sci-fi
thriller "Minority Report." He is treading on darker waters than usual, and
sometimes aims for some moral ambiguity (though I think he got squeamish about
such ambiguity in "Minority Report.") With this film (more lighthearted than
dark), he shows us a young man as a sort of innocent, 60's antihero who did no
harm to anybody except steal money. And when he goes to jail and gets to work
for the FBI in the check fraud department, one can't help but feel that
Spielberg is saying something about crime he has never dared to say before: it
Copyright © 2003 Jerry Saravia