After seeing his family torn apart by the IRS and infidelity, Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) is determined to turn his life around. While still under the age of 18, Frank becomes the youngest man ever on the FBI's 10 most wanted list through a myriad of check-forging schemes and identity thefts (he successfully and repeatedly impersonated a jet pilot, a lawyer, a teacher and a doctor). His chief pursuer is FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), who wants nothing more than to catch Frank, for his personal and professional reputation. As Frank travels across the globe living a stolen lifestyle, Carl is hot on his trail, seemingly about to end Frank's unprecedented (and true) run at every turn.
At its most primitive level, "Catch Me If You Can" (IMDb listing) is a rollicking caper that keeps the audience guessing about Frank's next con. Through gratuitously billed as such, "Catch Me" is truly director Steven Spielberg's loosest film in eons, resisting societal preaching and overwrought dramatics for much of its 140-minute running time. Spielberg keeps this film low to the ground, moving within the story just as quickly as Frank, and racing from con to con with the same glee as the teen grifter. It's thrilling to watch Spielberg work so efficiently, especially coming after last summer's top-heavy "Minority Report." The speed of the filmmaking never comes at the expense of the story either. Each character and their central rationale remains in tact and is believable, and the tale doesn't get caught up in the substantial web it weaves. It may not be Spielberg's most shining moment as a director, but it reminds the viewer that there's still enthusiasm left in the old pro.
You can recognize right away from the Saul Bass-inspired opening credits that "Catch Me If You Can" will revel in its retro 1960s glory. Propelled by John Williams' slinky, jazzy, sweetly low-tech score (quite a departure for the composer), "Catch Me" convincingly recalls an era of burgeoning decadence that still clung tightly to the morals of the middle-class and the dreams of the lower-class. With period set dressings and colors bursting in every shot, and all those iconic corporate symbols (like Pan Am) back in play for the recreation of the era, "Catch Me" is quite pleasing to the eye. Even the typically soft focus photography from Spielberg-regular Janusz Kaminski cannot spoil this rare opportunity to drink in a non-Vietnam related 1960s film.
Aside from some sluggishness in the final act, the element that bothers me most in this picture is that it appears to be celebrating Frank's law-breaking escapades. Unlike a real fictional, love-of-the-con film like "Ocean's 11," "Catch Me" is rooted in reality, where banks and people all over the globe were conned by Frank's compulsive deceiving. While Spielberg doesn't mind detailing the giddiness of the crimes, he doesn't quite dole out the punishment either, regardless of the citizens Frank hurt. The eventual incarceration Frank endured is treated with minimal depth, and Frank never seems at all remorseful over the money he stole. Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson ("Rush Hour 2") does an admirable job detailing Frank's justification for his crimes -- his father was reduced to poverty by the IRS -- but I don't believe for a minute that Frank should be celebrated for his misdeeds, however noble they might've seemed to him. Spielberg doesn't entirely feel the same way, and the end of "Catch Me" he leaves on a note of optimism rather than justice.
Appearing to enjoy the cat-and-mouse nature of "Catch Me If You Can," both Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks deliver first-rate performances. DiCaprio is the star of the film, and his take on Frank brings out the raw necessity of the character's early origins, which eventually melts into hysterical greed by the film's end. Couple this with his fine work in the recent "Gangs Of New York," and DiCaprio has more than graduated from his "Titanic" years of teen stardom. He is once again the fierce, hungry actor he was in the early 1990s.
Hanks, with the smaller role, looks as if he's enjoying a rare opportunity to not shoulder the entire film. Since Hanks plays the hunter, his performance is built around discovery rather than Frank's detailed planning, allowing for the full range of patented Tom Hanks befuddled looks. The actor brings wonderful colors to his role, mostly through Carl's growing obsession with catching Frank, but also in his unceasing kindness when he gets his (multiple) opportunities to do so. Hanks even manages to maintain his New England accent throughout the entire film, a feat that is lost on DiCaprio.
Of special note in the acting department is the performance from Christopher Walken as Frank Abagnale, Sr. In a touching role as a broken man who actually applauds his own son's deceptions, Walken is given the chance to play outside of his normal deadpan comedy/sinister roles. He is the only actor in the cast who's honestly touching. It's great work.
140 minutes doesn't do this slender film any favors, but "Catch Me If You Can" is premium Spielberg working on cylinders that haven't been fired in years. It's worth a look just for that alone.
Filmfodder Grade: B+