Catch Me if You Can (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Catch Me if You Can is the closest director Steven Spielberg has come to making a comedy since 1979, when his 1941 bombed at the box office. A jaunty caper movie inspired by real-life events, Catch Me if You Can never takes itself or its subjects too seriously, and contains more genuinely funny material than about 90% of the so-called "comedies" found in multiplexes these days. It also helps that in his two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, Spielberg has actors who are capable of switching effortlessly between drama and comedy. The result is an enjoyable, although not ambitious, holiday outing.

Catch Me if You Can details the somewhat fictionalized tale of Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), who, between the ages of 16 and 21, was the world's most successful con artist. Not only did he successfully pose as an airplane pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, but he cashed more than $2.5 million worth of fraudulent checks. Now, nearly four decades after being brought down, Abagnale is one of the foremost authorities on corporate security.

Soon after beginning his life of crime, Frank finds himself being pursued by FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). For years, the two engage in a cat-and-mouse game, with Carl always a few steps behind Frank. But, despite his numerous failures in just missing Frank, Carl never gives up. Meanwhile, Frank frequently re-invents himself, sometimes because he needs a new cover to escape capture and sometimes out of sheer boredom. But, despite his wealth and success, he is a lonely person. His deepest connection is with his father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken, in a low-key and moving portrayal), whom he deeply respects. He harbors feelings of resentment towards his self-absorbed mother, Paula (Nathalie Baye), who dumped his father for a more successful man (James Brolin). His loneliness makes him vulnerable to the sweet naïveté of Brenda Strong (Amy Adams), a nurse he meets in an Atlanta hospital where he is posing as a doctor. He genuinely falls in love with her, but, when Hanratty closes in, he is forced to run… again.

Catch Me if You Can crosses several genres without abandoning its overall tone. There are several deeply affecting scenes, including an exchange in a bar between Frank and his father and a sequence on an airplane when Carl delivers some sad news. There are also elements of a thriller, albeit a light one, with the authorities often nearly cornering Frank, only to have him slip away. There is no question that, despite Frank's illicit behavior, he is the movie's protagonist, and we are intended to root for him. Leonardo DiCaprio's charm serves him well; Frank is charismatic and easy to like. On the other hand, Tom Hanks does not play a bad guy. By intent, Carl is not a very interesting man, and his personal life is left largely unexplored. But he becomes a confidant for Frank, and, eventually, even though the two are on opposite sides of the law, they develop a bond.

At 140 minutes, Catch Me if You Can is a little on the long side. Although, for the most part, it moves quickly, the final fifteen minutes are protracted and arguably unnecessary. In his attempts to redeem Frank, Spielberg may go too far and let the movie continue past the point where it begins to run out of steam. Nevertheless, one of the most memorable scenes occurs during that portion of the film, as Frank stares through a pane of glass, gazing into another world.

The '60s period detail is impeccable, but what else would one expect from Spielberg? The attitudes of the characters fit the era. Today, it's hard to remember a time when airline pilots were regarded with such reverence. Or when people were so easily fooled. This was before Vietnam and Watergate, and Spielberg remembers that. John Williams' score is more intimate and jazzy than his usual material, evoking (intentionally) Henry Mancini.

It's would be hard to find a more stark contrast to the dark science fiction thriller Minority Report than a breezy endeavor like Catch Me if You Can. By doing these films back-to-back, Spielberg emphasizes his range as a director. Who else could do something as silly and visceral as Jurassic Park, then follow it up with Schindler's List? Catch Me if You Can is not the kind of movie that was made to garner Oscar nominations. Instead, it was developed as an exercise in pure entertainment. In that aim, it succeeds admirably.

Catch Me if You Can (United States, 2002)

Run Time: 2:20
U.S. Release Date: 2002-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1