Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) looked up to his retailer dad (Christopher Walken), who loved to regale his son with the story of how he among many won the beautiful eighteen year old Frenchwoman (Nathalie Baye, "Venus Beauty Institute") who would become Frank Jr.'s mom at the end of WWII. When his father's business fails and his mom divorces his dad, Frank Jr. runs away at home at the age of sixteen and becomes a legendary con man who taunts the FBI for five years with "Catch Me If You Can."
Director Steven Spielberg shifts from the paranoid future of "Minority Report" to the trusting innocence of the early 1960s with "Catch Me If You Can," a comic cat and mouse story that would be hard to believe if it weren't true. While Spielberg once again visits his recurring theme of the lost child, he's gradually shedding his propensity for manipulative button pushing. "Catch Me If You Can" is a well-acted, stylish production that can only be faulted for the director's familiar inability to find a concise way to end his film.
Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson ("Rush Hour 2") does, however, find the perfect way to begin the movie, using the TV series 'To Tell the Truth' to present us with the facts that Abagnale Jr. successfully impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer and passed fake checks totaling millions all before his 21st birthday. We then flash back to Frank's early years of family drama.
Frank is the proudest person in the room when his dad is honored at a rotary meeting by its president Jack Barnes (James Brolin), but dismayed when he finds Jack at home with his mother when he returns home from school one day. Frank's genius for the con has already been displayed when he protects himself from school bullies by pretending to be a substitute French teacher for a week. When he's forced to choose which parent to live with, he runs from New Rochelle to New York City and begins passing bad checks using the account his dad opened for his birthday. He poses as an eager high school journalist to get inside info from PanAm, scams a uniform and begins flying from city to city cashing forged Pan Am paychecks. Hot on his trail is Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), a humorless FBI agent with a love of bureaucracy which makes him the perfect paper trail hunter.
Frank uses his dad's charming ploys to get his way with the ladies until a move to Atlanta and a new job as an ER supervisor crosses his path with Brenda (newcomer Amy Adams), a naive candy striper estranged from her parents who Frank feels compelled to protect. Just as Frank is about to get a family back, having healed Brenda's rift with her folks, Hanratty catches up with him and he flees again before a final showdown.
Spielberg and Nathanson balance Frank's exploits with his need for a father figure and family. Once Hanratty learns the genius 'paperhanger' he's after is only a kid, his admiration and determination are joined by a desire to protect and rehabilitate the damaged youth. He's an obvious father figure, who in real life did help Abagnale learn to make his living on the right side of the law. The filmmakers also inject a little of the 1940s Woo Woo Kid into Frank Jr., who proclaims 'this is the best date I ever had!' after bedding a willing stewardess.
DiCaprio is perfectly cast as the boy who could pass for a professional. He downshifts from suave ladies' man to needy child looking for acceptance smoothly and can make wistful avoid overt sentimentality. He also slips on various accents to suit his various personas. Hanks is great as the Joe Friday whose passion for paper makes his coworkers roll their eyes. He gives Carl a flat drawl and ramrod posture. Christopher Walken maintains an air of eternal hope, even when his American dream has crashed and burned. Nathalie Baye makes Frank's mother a woman looking for the next party, an unsentimental opportunist the opposite of the man she first married. Amy Adams invests Brenda with an innocence Frank has lost and a neediness that equals his own.
Director of photography Janusz Kaminski ("Minority Report") and production designer Jeannine Oppewlal ("Pleasantville") give the film a colorfully sunny look which is also reflected in Mary Zophres hip costume design. On his twentieth collaboration with Spielberg, composer John Williams delivers a doozy of a score with bouncy jazz riffs for the hep cats of the period. The soundtrack also includes such period touchstones as "The Girl From Impanema" and Frank Sinatra's "Come Fly With Me."
Airline co-pilot, chief emergency ward physician, school teacher, assistant to the District Attorney of New Orleans and check forger extraordinaire are the careers that Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) took on before his 21st birthday. But, even during the 60's, when you defraud high-powered companies of over $2.5 million you are bound to get noticed by the FBI and agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) heads the chase for the elusive teen in Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can."
Leonardo DiCaprio may be overshadowed by his costar in his other film showing this holiday season ("Gangs of New York"), but in "Catch Me If You Can" he is, front and center, the star of the film. Frank Abagnale Jr. is an extremely intelligent young man whose family life is in turmoil. His dad, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken), is in Dutch with the government and is losing everything, including his wife, Paula (Nathalie Baye). When young Frank is forced to give up private school and attends the local public establishment, he pretends, on the spur of the moment, be a French teacher - and everyone believes it! When Paula Abagnale leaves her husband and son, Frank Jr. runs away, with the plan, in the back of his mind, to reunite his estranged parents.
The script, by Jeff Nathanson based on Abagnale's autobiographical book (written with Stan Redding), follows young Frank's colorful life as he poses as a Pan American Airlines co-pilot to travel the continent and cash bogus checks from coast to coast. He shifts gears, forges a Harvard Medical School diploma and takes the job as supervising physician in a night emergency ward in an Atlanta, Georgia hospital where he falls in love with pretty, naïve Brenda (Amy Adams), a candy striper working there. He proposes marriage and heads to New Orleans to meet her parents, Roger and Carol Strong (Martin Sheen and Nancy Lenehan). Frank learns that dad is the New Orleans D.A. and expresses an interest in "returning" to the law, making up the story, on the fly, that he attended law school at Berkley before going to medical school. He takes the Louisiana bar exam, passes and starts working as Roger's assistant.
Meanwhile Carl Hanratty is dogging the teen's every step and comes close, a number of times, to catching Frank, but the lad always keeps tantalizingly out of reach. Carl's buttoned up persona and dogged determination pushes his fellow agents away and the forger-hunting FBI guy leads a lonely life. The cat and mouse game he and Frank play forms a bond between them which leads to annual Christmas phone calls and a father/son relationship that Frank needs since his dad's death. As Carl closes in on capturing Frank he realizes that he actually cares for the kid who bamboozled him for years, making for a nice onscreen relationship.
The primary cast is small but all the players give their very best. DiCaprio plays the consummate con man with skill and style as he talks his way through one scheme after another. But, he also injects the little boy quality that cries out for a home where his mom and dad live happily. This dream will never come true as he watches his father become a shell of his former self and his mother remarries. It is a richly structured performance and represents one of Leo's best, most relaxed works to date.
Tom Hanks deserves award notice for his very structured perf as FBI Agent Carl Hanratty. With his New England twang and tightly buttoned up personality, he is a relentless pursuer of Frank. Carl's personality is rigid and unlikable, even when telling a knock-knock joke, but Hanks imbues an inherent kindness and understanding toward the young man he is pursuing. There is a nice authenticity to the scenes where DiCaprio and Hanks play together.
Christopher Walken breaks your heart as Frank, Sr. He has always been out for the quick buck and you can see where his son gets his con man's talent. When he runs afoul with the Feds, though, he loses heart, becomes increasingly paranoid and eventually loses his wife to another man, family friend Jack Barnes (James Brolin). Frank wants to believe that junior is all he says he is in his letters but the father knows, in his heart, the truth. Walken puts a thoughtful arc on his portrayal of the elder Abagnale and a sad one, too. Martin Sheen lends charm and humor as Frank's almost-father-in-law. Amy Adams, in her first major film role, is sweet and fresh faced as Brenda. Her character represents the ideal life that Frank seeks but can never have because of his felonious past and present. Other background characters are just that - background
Steven Spielberg departs from his last couple of somber-themed films ("A.I." and "Minority Report") with a light and breezy flick that showcases his stars and keeps a sense of good-natured humor, even when things turn serious. He keeps with his oft-used story device of the little boy seeking a father and selected an interesting subject in young Frank's amazing life. The helmer elicits solid perfs from his players in front of the camera while managing his talented behind-the-camera crew with a deft hand.
Techs are outstanding across the board. Costume designer Mary Zophres captures the feel of the film's 60's backdrop, moving from dark hews to bright and flashy as Frank's life makes its upward spiral. Carl Hanratty's attire, in contrast, remains sober and plain with his dark colored, narrow lapelled suits and skinny ties. Production design, by Jeannine Oppewall, brings the period to life as the story traverses America and abroad. Spielberg's cinematographer alumnus, two-time Oscar winner ("Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan") Janusz Kaminski, keeps things brisk and crisp that helps the film sustain its two+ hour run time. The only real flaw is Spielberg's inability to just end a film. He always has to have some kind of wrap up coda and "Catch Me If You Can" is no exception as we learn about Frank's ultimate return to the straight and narrow - with Carl's help.
I give "Catch Me If You Can" a B+.
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