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CATCH ME IF YOU CAN(director: Steven Spielberg; screenwriter: based on the book by Frank Abagnale Jr & Stan Redding/Jeff Nathanson; cinematographer: Janusz Kaminski; editor: Michael Kahn; music: John Williams; cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Frank Abagnale, Jr.), Tom Hanks (Carl Hanratty), Christopher Walken (Frank Abagnale, Sr.), Nathalie Baye (Frank’s Mother, Paula Abagnale), Amy Adams (Brenda), Jennifer Garner (Prostitute), Martin Sheen (Brenda’s Father), Frank John Hughes (FBI Agent Fox), Brian Howe (FBI Agent Amdursky), James Brolin (Jack Barnes), Nancy Lenehan (Carol Strong); Runtime: 140; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Steven Spielberg/Walter F. Parkes; DreamWorks; 2002)
It can’t overcome how empty it all is.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Catch Me If You Can, a Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks vehicle directed by Steven Spielberg, is a breezy comedy with questionable ulterior motives, as it suspends any moral judgment because the main character achieved rehabilitation. On top of that, it seems to revel in the larceny perpetrated, as if the criminal activity done is so clever for a teenager to do that all an adult should do is smile and ignore it. It seems to wax nostalgic in its homage to a scam artist back in the good ‘old days’ of the 1960s when the use of computer technology wasn’t available and a scam artist really had to know his craft to succeed. The filmmaker is not concerned by the innocent people and institutions this common thief ripped off, or ever adequately explains why a reasonable person should accept his sorry reason he did it was because his parents’ got divorced. “Catch” is too cavalier in its ready acceptance of its juvenile’s criminality and gives him a free ride throughout–and, it thereby encourages the viewer to root for the delinquent. It aims to be an escapist, unthinking, vacuous, feel-good film about a real smart-ass who turns things around and makes something of himself and is now looked up to because he works with the FBI to fight criminals who do the same crimes he once did. That’s why the film begins with his arrest, so as to show in the end he didn’t get away with his crime spree and therefore the viewer shouldn’t be concerned with that stage of his life but focus on the character himself as his story is told in flashback. Its worst crime is that none of this stuff is really funny or does it make one feel any sense of compassion for the lonely kid who is a dreamer living in a fantasy world of comic books and James Bond during the time of his crime spree.

“Catch” is inspired by the true story based on the life of Frank Abagnale Jr. as written in the autobigraphy by Frank Abagnale Jr. & Stan Redding, it’s additionally scripted by Jeff Nathanson.

The film falters after its quick start when the script has to be padded because there’s nothing much to this tale, and after many false endings in its search for a big one it concludes with a whimper by summing up how the film’s protagonist not only survived his criminal escapade as an impostor, life on the run and a stiff Federal prison sentence, but got an early release through the recommendation of the FBI to help them in their fraud unit and he has now become a millionaire by using his expertise about check forgeries to apprehend others and as head of a secure documents corporation he has designed for the banks a secure check. When compared to a similar film based on a true story about an impostor, Chameleon Street, this one greatly pales.

The film opens to a TV game show called “To Tell The Truth” in the late 1970s and the announcer Joe Garagiola proclaims to the panel that the impostor among the three contestants (Frank was the middle one) successfully impersonated a Pan American pilot and flew over two million miles for free, became a Chief Resident Pediatrician at a Georgia hospital, and the Assistant Attorney General for the state of Louisiana for about five years from 1964 until his arrest in France in 1969. By the time he was caught and sentenced to prison, he had cashed almost four million dollars in fraudulent checks in 26 foreign countries and in all fifty states, and he did it all before his 19th birthday. He ended up serving two years in a French prison, and when extradited served four years in the Federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia.

The instinctive and nimble Leonardo DiCaprio plays a lighthearted role he’s well suited for, as he stars as Frank Abagnale Jr.. In 1964, the 16-year-old Frank while living with his larcenous stationery store-owner father (Walken) and his French-born mother (Baye) in New Rochelle, an affluent suburb of NYC, runs away from home when upset over the divorce of his parents and that the IRS had come down hard on his father for fraud and back taxes (they take away his car and fancy house). His father is first seen accepting the prestigious honor of being inducted into the Rotarian Club, but it’s all downhill from here on. His big talk schemes that he fills the family with and how a life of luxury is just around the corner, evaporates when he loses his business. The son greatly admires and identifies with his lovable but dishonest dad, whom he seems to not only look like and take after but seems to be a genetic clone of. The father is also crushed when his war bride, whom he swept off her feet at a dance in her hometown and brought her back to the States to be married, has left him for a successful lawyer (Brolin) who is head of the Rotarian Club.

Young Frank splits from his family rather than choose which parent to live with and takes a train to New York City where he tries to get money by passing bad checks, but when foiled by that honest effort at larceny decides instead to become an impostor with a respectable occupation so that he would have no trouble in the future cashing checks. He tricked his way into getting a Pan Am pilot’s uniform by claiming to have lost his in the cleaners and along with phony identification he forged, he was able to fly free across the world. To get money he regularly forges Pan Am checks by washing the logo off model planes and placing it on a blank check, and he then easily cashes it. He feels safe doing it this way after sweet talking a female teller into telling him how to change the routing numbers.

When young Frank makes the FBI’s most wanted list, the G-Man in charge of check fraud, Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), a strait-laced but bumbling agent in the field when away from his desk and a clone for a Blues Brother in dress and appearance, but without a sense of humor, ends up assigned to Frank’s case. He chases him down in Miami, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New Orleans, and he finally corners him in his mother’s hometown of Montrichard, France, on Christmas Eve in 1969. Carl’s a lonely, workaholic, who becomes a surrogate father to Frank, and identifies with him even more as they each find themselves without anyone on Christmas Eve and he discovers that both their lives are built around the lies they tell themselves. Carl’s wife remarried and his young daughter is not always able to see him, and he can’t face his personal life so he fantasizes that it’s not that bad and throws himself completely into his work to forget how lonely he really is. This role is enhanced by Hanks’ usual fine layered performance, where he gives his character more breathe than he deserves.

Frank’s aimless crime spree really goes no further than him wanting to pick up girls and of him admiring the way he looks in a sexy pilot’s uniform (the 1960s made pilots and stewardesses into sex symbols). When he no longer cares to risk being a pilot after he makes a fool out of G-Man Carl and avoids capture by pretending to be a secret agent, he goes to Atlanta where he impersonates a doctor and meets an airhead nurse wearing braces named Brenda (Adams). He meets her New Orleans family, and gets over with her reptilian-like prosecutor father (Martin Sheen). He convinces him that he’s also a romantic and has lied about his occupation in order to woo his daughter into marriage. Its all done with a cheeky attitude that tries to make some social satire out of nothing much. In fact, that’s what’s wrong — there’s just an empty caper story present even though it tries to be a character study film. But no matter how well it’s acted or directed, it can’t overcome how empty it all is–the character studied has nothing to say about his escapade that means much, nor does his captor have anything to say about his life choices that means much in a dramatic sense.

“Catch” is best seen for the straight performance by Walken, one of the few that he gives that’s not over-the-top. He’s quite touching and works well with the baby-faced DiCaprio in giving the film the look of smoothness it banks on. But aside from the fine craftsmanship Spielberg pours into this pic, John Williams’ upbeat whimsical 1960s styled musical score, the superb acting across the board, and the technical skills supplied by the editor and the cinematographer to make it all so fluid, what you have is a cotton candy film that sticks to your teeth and has no substance.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”