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Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Take a swig of Spielberg Lite

Catch Me If You Can

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Running time: 141 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

OK, let's imagine you're Steven Spielberg, you're the world's best-known, most powerful director, and you can make damn near anything you want. So what projects do you choose? You want to rake in the bucks and play with new tech? "Jurassic Park." You want to be taken seriously and take home an Oscar? "Schindler's List" or "Saving Private Ryan." You want to be Stanley Kubrick? "A. I." or "Minority Report."

News photo
Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio in "Catch Me If You Can"

But what about a film like "Catch Me If You Can," a light comedy about a real-life con artist in the early '60s who forged checks and passed himself off as a doctor, lawyer and airline pilot (and, on occasion, as 007 author Ian Fleming)? What is it that drives you to make this film as opposed to a zillion others?

Well, here are two big reasons: Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio. With casting like that, you could even make "The Dick Cheney Story" and possibly make money. But beyond the stars, there's something about the movie's protagonist, Frank Abagnale Jr., that's quintessentially Hollywood -- a guy who lives the lie and makes it work.

Young Frank (DiCaprio) is a precocious teen with a knack for talking his way through any situation. When he's getting teased at his new school, he pretends to be a substitute teacher and lords it over his classmates for a week before he's caught out. It's clear he's been influenced by his dad (Christopher Walken), a glib salesman being investigated for tax fraud.

As Frank Sr.'s business goes down the tubes, so does his marriage to Paula (Nathalie Baye), who -- like all French women in American movies -- has a man or two on the side. When the couple finally split, Frank Jr. has to choose which parent to live with. Unable to do so, he takes off instead and winds up in New York City, staying at cheap hotels and passing bum checks.

That's a strategy that can only work for so long, and Frank realizes he has to take it to the next level. His inspiration comes when he sees the suave strut of an airline pilot, in full, crisply pressed uniform, surrounded by a gaggle of equally snazzy stewardesses. (This is the '60s, when airline staff exuded pure glamour, hard though it may be to believe in these days of surly in-flight service.)

This, thinks Frank, is what I want to be. But for a 17-year-old with no funds to speak of, there's only one way around flight school, and it's the old maxim: "The clothes make the man." Frank arms himself with a pilot's uniform and a bunch of info gleaned from a Pan Am exec during a fake interview for a nonexistent school newspaper. Soon he's hitching flights around the globe -- although fortunately not at the controls -- and living off the airline's expense account.

He one-ups the scam by sweet-talking a bank teller and milking her for info on how checks are processed; next thing you know he's churning out perfect forgeries of Pan Am payroll checks, which make him a pile of money, but also put the FBI on his trail. His chief pursuer is a dour, driven agent named Carl Hanratty, the kind of guy who will work on Christmas Eve because he's got nothing better to do.

Here's where Spielberg throws in the obligatory pop-psych symmetry between pursuer and prey: Hanratty, the father who's shut out his divorce in work, and Frank, the son who's fleeing a broken home through crime. Like so many Spielberg films, the emotional payoff is the restoration of that familial bond, even if, in this case, it's a substitute one.

But the film's more intriguing aspect is the idea that you can pull off just about anything if you're smooth-talking, act like you know what you're doing, and just keep on smiling. Abagnale was a man who could even convince the Feds he was a fellow cop.

Surely Spielberg -- who as a young, nervous director bluffed his way through a disastrous shoot on "Jaws" only to see it become a megahit -- knows that feeling. And DiCaprio? He was born for this role, which shows how far affability and good looks can get you. But anyone who's worked in cinema, in the creation of fiction, can't help but admire Abagnale, a guy who could watch a few episodes of "General Hospital" and impersonate a doctor, not on the controlled confines of a movie set, but in an actual emergency room. Acting doesn't get any further out on the edge.

If the film finally feels a bit flat, it's not due to the lack of a good story or a want of good direction. Hanks doesn't do hard-boiled well, nor does DiCaprio delve into ambivalence. Abagnale isn't above sleeping with high-class hookers, or shamelessly manipulating people, mostly romantically inclined young women, one of whom even becomes his fiancee without ever knowing his real name. But like "Gangs Of New York," DiCaprio never takes the risk of making us dislike his character a little; he just comes off looking cool. A telling comparison is Johnny Depp in "Blow," who had an almost identical relationship to parents, crime and money to portray but who succeeded in painting a far richer -- and darker -- portrait of misguided criminal success.

This comes off as an altogether airier film, but that's no bad thing; it goes down like sparkling wine. It will probably pass through your system just as fast, but you most likely won't regret having imbibed. "Spielberg Lite" is hardly the equal of his more involved works of late, but it still boasts a maturity -- the notion that childhood trauma can't be a continuing excuse for adult dysfunction -- that ranks this leagues above "Hook." Michael Jackson, take note.

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