Steven Spielberg is back with a more accessible, viewer friendly film than either A.I. or Minority Report — and Catch Me If You Can is apt to ingratiate him to admirers who were not thrilled by the direction those other two films indicated he was taking. Many will doubtless view this as a return to form; at the same time, it’s just as apt to displease those who were starting to take him more “seriously.” There’s something to be said for both points of view.
Working from Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay based on the memoirs of Frank Abagnale Jr., the director has crafted a movie that’s clearly designed for maximum audience appeal. It gives us a likable — sometimes lovable — protagonist, an engaging true-life story, solid production values, something approximating genuine emotions and a sense of at least faux hipness. Spielberg spins with an assured hand the yarn of the real-life adventures of Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio), a high-school kid who successfully managed to impersonate a Pan Am pilot, a doctor and a lawyer — and who, in the process, created and cashed about $4 million in checks. Catch Me If You Can even qualifies as a kind of holiday movie by repeatedly setting events at Christmas.
The film is entertaining and generally enjoyable — and strangely, it’s part and parcel of the current retro trend in filmmaking. This back-looking approach, used recently in different ways by such diverse movies as Lilo and Stitch, Far From Heaven and The Truth About Charlie, may merely reflect the fact that, as a society, we are finally far enough away from the 1950s and 1960s to begin seriously re-evaluating those decades. Unfortunately, Spielberg’s film is the most tentative and least adventurous addition yet to this undeniable trend.
The movie starts off promisingly enough: Its opening, backed by John Williams’ ersatz Henry Mancini score, resembles one of the DePatie-Freling animated-title sequences from The Pink Panther flicks. Yet this stylized approach — which actually highlights a central failing of the movie — doesn’t last; Spielberg’s film never manages to quite get beneath the surface of the time period it depicts, instead skimming the era in a way that isn’t entirely believable.
The film that Catch Me If You Can most reminds me of — with its thumbnail sketch of a larcenous character enjoying the fruits of his larceny — is Ted Demme’s Blow — though Spielberg’s film feels kind of like Blow-lite, offering a bad case of the “quaints” in the bargain. The movie includes, for example, a sequence of a family watching and singing along with TV’s Sing Along With Mitch. Now, I’m not sure that anyone actually ever sang along with Mitch, though the point is that Spielberg uses this footage to take a cheap shot at the era, making his main character react to the family as if they were creatures from some alternate universe.
Too, several aspects of the movie don’t quite add up. For instance, if Abagnale started his impersonations at the age of 16, he has to be 21 or more by the film’s end; yet he’s hoping to be tried for fraud as a minor? And why are the French — against whom Abagnale has committed no stated crime — so out to get him that his life is in danger? The movie doesn’t resolve any of these questions. Considering that Catch Me If You Can weighs in at a ponderous 140 minutes, it’s reasonable to expect a few answers. Even so, it’s impossible to deny Spielberg’s pure craftsmanship and the film’s entertainment value.
From a purely personal standpoint, any movie that can make me like DiCaprio is doing something right, no matter what its other shortcomings may be. Catch Me If You Can is impeccably made, wonderfully performed and enjoyable (if overlong), though it never actually gets a grasp on the brass ring. Watch it purely for the fun of the story, for Spielberg’s technical expertise and for some fine performances — but don’t expect a great movie.