Mark Reviews Movies


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Amy Adams, Nathalie Baye, Martin Sheen

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content and brief language)

Running Time: 2:20

Release Date: 12/25/02

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can is a wonderful film that makes you giddy from the purity of its form—a great story told with utter confidence. This is Spielberg’s second film this year, and it continues a steady pattern of great success. Although compared to the still controversial A.I. Artificial Intelligence (which is—I am now more convinced than ever—a masterpiece) and this year’s still highly debated Minority Report (which I hold to be one of this year’s best films), Catch Me If You Can is highly accessible. Spielberg, working off a rich and detailed screenplay by Jeff Nathanson, is so assured in his storytelling that the film bursts to life and overflows with thematic resonance that in anyone else’s hands would probably remain untouched. The simplicity of the story and filmmaking is deceiving; there’s a wealth of significant undercurrents to the film—the complexity of the father/son and surrogate father/son relationship, the disintegration of the American family, the willingness of people to believe what they’re told, the determination of a boy to set things right within and for his family. These things are at the heart of the film, which is ultimately about a boy growing up, related through a loving sense of nostalgia that evolves into an acceptance of reality and responsibility.

In 1963, Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) was living the average life of a teenager in suburban New York. His father Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) and mother Paula (Nathalie Baye) still fondly recall how they met in small French village where Frank Sr. was on duty. Frank Sr. is in being investigated by the government for tax fraud and introduces his son to the ways of appearing more important than you are (“People only know what you tell them.”) to catch a break at the bank. It’s to no avail, and eventually, the family is forced to move to an apartment. At his new school, Frank’s father’s lessons start to show through, and he’s eventually reprimanded for impersonating a substitute teacher for a week. Then his life begins to fall apart. His parents decide to divorce, and a lawyer forces Frank to decide which parent he will live with. He runs away and eventually turns minor check fraud into an entire lifestyle of false identities (pilot, doctor, lawyer) and counterfeit checks. This eventually catches the attention of the FBI, and Agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) leads the investigation against him.

As implausible as it sounds, the story is based on the real events of Frank Abagnale, whose book (written with Stan Redding) is the basis for the film, and it’s certainly one of those real-life stories for which movies are made because they seem like a movie in and of themselves. The film works on three basic levels, as a comedy, a cat-and-mouse chase, and a family drama. It’s a comedy of deception, a social study in the way one’s appearance makes or breaks them. The real Abagnale made a very profitable life out of people’s predetermined notions about image (a couple of million dollars worth), and the film’s humor comes from the way a charming young man, nicely dressed, always ready with a smooth word or two is able to get whatever he wants. There’s also much comedy from the men giving chase. The FBI agents are all appearance and procedure but never seem on top of things. Even Hanratty falls prey to Abagnale’s cons on more than one occasion. The chase is fascinating because we see how Frank is always one step ahead of Hanratty, no matter how hard the latter tries. Even when everything seems finished for Frank, the script has another trick up its sleeve to keep the proceeding unpredictable.

Underneath the décor of comedy and detective story is the film’s true center. Frank’s modus operandi is an innocent, youthful desire to keep his family together or, if that fails, to find a place for himself in similar circumstances. It gives the character of Abagnale an urgency of childish desperation—a need to belong. He finds it in his father, who, even after learning of his son’s indiscretions, is always there for a chat. The change in their relationship is one of the film’s most heartbreaking developments. Each of their conversations while Frank is on the lamb contains a moment where the father asks the son, “Where are you going?”  Notice the way the tone of the line changes from a curious, fatherly concern the first time around to an envious, almost spiteful quality the second time. Then there’s Frank’s relationship with a young candy striper named Brenda (Amy Adams, in a minor but very strong performance). Their relationship is based around a lie, which is the last thing she needs in her life at that time. There’s a great series of moments in which Frank spends some time with her family, watches them reunite, and is ultimately reminded of his past family life. The last major relationship between Frank and Hanratty complements the relationship between Frank and Frank Sr. Their relationship essentially remains unspoken, but it’s unmistakably surrogate father and son. Hanratty represents the disciplinary figure in Frank’s life (Frank Sr. was never hard on his boy). This relationship eventually leads to Frank’s comeuppance, which is a matter of such sweet irony that it can only be true.

The casting is impeccable. Leonardo DiCaprio has been selective in his roles since Titanic and has had little luck as a result, but his performance here is a testament to his possibilities as an actor and a star. DiCaprio is undeniably charismatic here and makes the transitions in age from 15 to his mid-twenties with ease. There’s also the subtle ways in which DiCaprio ages Frank in personality and spirit as his innocence slowly begins to fade. Tom Hanks is all process and heavy Boston accent as Hanratty, and his moments of development give one of the film’s central relationships an added level. Perhaps Hanratty wants the same kind of relationship with Frank as Frank wants with him. Christopher Walken’s turn is remarkable. After years of seeing Walken playing eccentric villains or other assortments of criminals, to see him pull off a hard-working father with such a complete sadness to him is a revelation.

As if Spielberg hasn’t shown himself to be the foremost American cinematic storyteller yet, Catch Me If You Can solidifies his position. This is the kind of film that reminds you of the absolute enjoyment of watching a great story in the hands of a great director and cast working with a love for the cinema that radiates from off the screen. But let’s get one thing straight: Spielberg doesn’t automatically make great movies because he’s a great director; he’s a great director because he has the ability to make great movies. Catch Me If You Can is one of them.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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