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Spielberg in the Aughts: Catch Me If You Can (2002)

When I began this project of rewatching the last decade-and-a-half’s worth of films directed by Steven Spielberg, I was hoping that I’d discover (or rediscover) some great films that I had perhaps dismissed too easily when I originally saw them in theatres.  I wondered if watching the films now, years later and separated from the hype and expectations that came with their original theatrical releases, would allow me to appreciate them more and perhaps cause me to re-evaluate my original opinions.

So far, though, that hasn’t happened.  I’ve enjoyed (for the most part), re-watching The Lost World, Amistad, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and Minority Report, but for all four films my opinions have remained almost exactly what they were when I first saw them.  (In a nutshell: mediocre, good, horrible, mediocre.)  But then, this week, I arrived at Catch Me If You Can.  I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed this flick!

Based on the autobiography of Frank Abergnale, Jr. (and co-written by Stan Redding), Catch Me If You Can tells the story of Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young man who, for years, successfully conned people into thinking he was an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, and who forged millions of dollars worth of checks.

Mr. Spielberg skillfully strikes a deft balance with the tone of the film.  There are some great moments of humor to be found in the tale (I particularly loved Hanratty’s knock-knock joke), and over-all the film has a fun, light tone.  And yet, at its core, Catch Me If You Can is really a profoundly sad story.  To me, the relationship between Frank and his father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) is the back-bone of the film, and it is heartbreaking.  In Frank Jr. we see a young man who, for all of his experiences, is still basically a child, looking for his father’s approval and desperately hoping to find a way to return his life to his idealized vision of how things used to be — with him, his father, and his mother all living happily together in a nice suburban house.  Frank Sr., meanwhile, has seen his business slowly fail (in the film we see him continually dogged by the IRS, and one assumes, despite Frank Sr.’s repeated claims, that this is not without good reason) and his wife leave him, but he is too proud to admit when he needs help and too angry at the government (and the society that allowed him to fail) to push his son to stop the increasingly elaborate con that he’s spinning.

Mr. Walken’s unique line-delivery can make him a ripe subject for parody.  For me, his one scene in Pulp Fiction has forever defined Mr. Walken in my mind — whenever I hear his voice, I start thinking “this watch…” — which leads me to laughter and can easily draw me out of what is meant to be a dramatic moment.  That (along with the undeniable fact that he has appeared in a lot of really bad movies) makes it easy for me to underestimate Mr. Walken as an actor, but performances like this one in Catch Me If You Can demonstrate how wrong that would be.

Mr. Walken absolutely dominates the film.  His fall in the story is almost more devastating that that of his son’s.  His scenes with Mr. DiCaprio are electric, and he is able to sell with few words — just the look in his sad, blue eyes — the things he cannot (or will not)discuss with his son.  We can see his struggle to maintain the facade that he creates, for his son and for everyone else who encounters him.  More critically, I think, is that we can suspect that he’s wise to Frank Jr.’s game from pretty early on in the story, even though he never quite puts that into words.  It’s a marvelous performance, and the best thing about the film for me.

Which is not to say that Leonardo DiCaprio is any slouch, either.  Mr. DiCaprio’s youthful features suit him well in the role.  One can sort of believe him as both 17 (the age his character actually is for most of the film) and 28 (the age that Frank Jr. tells people he is).  More importantly, Mr. DiCaprio is able to sell the clean-cut, desirable persona that Frank creates for himself (whether he’s wearing an airline pilot’s uniform or a doctor’s scrubs) while also showing us the broken, lonely boy underneath. 

The third member of the film’s trifecta of leads is, of course, Tom Hanks as FBI Agent Carl Hanratty, who spent years chasing young Mr. Abergnale.  Mr. Hanks turns in the first of two back-to-back performances in a Steven Spielberg film featuring a crazy accent.  (More on this next week, when I discuss The Terminal.)  I don’t have any idea if the real Agent Hanratty sounds anything like Mr. Hanks’ voice in the film, but even if the impersonation is not exact, it’s hard not to laugh at the voice that Hanks puts on.  But the bizarre thing is that the silliness of the accent somehow works within the comedic/dramatic tone of the film.  Mr. Spielberg’s movie is just playful enough that we can chuckle when Mr. Hanks speaks (particularly at first), while still engaging with his character and the story being told.  Equal credit must go both to Steven Spielberg the director and to Tom Hanks the actor.  Mr. Hanks is a powerful enough performer to be able to capture our attention during the dramatic moments (we feel Mr. Hanratty’s humiliation each time that Frank Jr. slips through his fingers), and he’s a charismatic enough leading man that he’s a lot of fun to watch despite (and perhaps, a teensy bit, even because of) the crazy accent.

One of the things that I always knew, but which I have really been reminded of when re-watching all of these Spielberg films, is Mr. Spielberg’s ability to cast amazing actors even in all of his films’ small, supporting roles.  This is probably due both to Mr. Spielberg’s power in Hollywood (actors are, I’d imagine, falling all over themselves to work with him), and also to his sometimes under-appreciated eye for casting.  Catch me If You Can is no exception to this.  There’s Amy Adams as Brenda Strong, the shy, sweet nurse who Frank meets when pretending to be a doctor and to whom he later proposes.  There’s Martin Sheen as Brenda’s father, a tough man who is nevertheless quickly sweet-talked by Frank.  There’s James Brolin in the tiny role of Jack Barnes, Frank Sr.’s friend who winds up marrying Frank Sr.’s wife after she leaves him.  There’s Jennifer Garner as a prostitute who Frank Jr. (dressed in a replica of Sean Connery’s iconic suit from Goldfinger — and let me say here how much I LOVED the Goldfinger sequence in the film!) meets in a hotel hallway.  There’s Elizabeth Banks and Ellen Pompeo, two other women with whom Frank crosses paths.  I could go on!  It really brings a film to life when the supporting characters are filled out so ably by such a winning compliment of skilled actors and actresses.

All of the pieces work well and fit well together in Catch Me If You Can.  Mr. Spielberg’s direction is confident, as always, and the actors are terrific.  The script by Jeff Nathanson is tight, and the amazing John Williams turns in another phenomenal score.  As with the film itself, Mr. Williams’ score is playful without ever rounding the corner into totally comedic music (which I usually find very annoying in films).  He created a wonderfully simple, subtle theme for Frank Jr. (which is highlighted in the movie’s terrific opening credits, which are animated in a wonderfully retro style) and which weaves in and out throughout the film.  There’s little about the film not to like.

At the top of this review, I described my hope that this re-watching project would lead me to re-evaluate my opinions of some of Mr. Spielberg’s recent films.  That sort-of happened with Catch Me If You Can, but as I thought about it more, I began to remember that I had really liked this film even when I first saw it in theatres.  But what happened is that it’s not a film that stayed in my mind.  I enjoyed seeing it on the big screen, but then forgot about it.  Why is that, I wonder?  I’ve come to think that perhaps it has to do with my over-all thoughts about Steven Spielberg.

It’s difficult to overstate the impact that so many of his films had on me at an early age.  Movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters of the Third Kind — these were HUGE movies for me, as a kid… and I know I’m not alone in saying that!  So there’s a big part of me that is always hoping, when I go to see a new Steven Spielberg film, for something as EPIC or as ground-breaking as were so many of the films he made early in his career.  So while I enjoyed Catch Me If You Can when I saw it in 2002, I guess I felt that the film, while fun, was over-all a bit slight.  If it had been directed by some young director I’d never heard of, I think I would have been blown away by the film!  But somehow to me it felt like it was a little beneath Mr. Spielberg.  It wasn’t the type of film I wanted to see him making.

But that really says more about me and my biases and expectations than it does about Catch Me If You Can.  Not every Steven Spielberg film can be Raiders of the Lost Ark!  (Nor should it be.)  I need to make peace with that!  Rewatching Catch Me If You Can reinforces just how solid a little film it is.  It’s not Raiders of the Lost Ark.  It’s not the funniest film ever made, nor the most dramatic.  It doesn’t contain the finest performance that Leonardo DiCaprio or Tom Hanks have ever done.  But it is a pretty great film nonetheless, and one that I’m really happy to have seen again.  After the twin disappointments of A.I. and Minority Report, this was a breath of fresh air!

I’ll be back next week — same Bat-time, same Bat-channel — with my thoughts on The Terminal!

Check out my earlier reviews of Steven Spielberg films: Minority Report (2002), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Amistad (1997), The Lost World (1997), Jurassic Park (1993), Empire of the Sun (1987), The Color Purple (1985).

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