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Catch Me If You Can

Oh, those swinging sixties. Everything just seemed so much crisper and cooler then. And to be an admired member of society, you actually had to do something; actual jobs had glamour to them. Before the modern concept of celebrity really took root, kids wanted to grow up and become things like airline pilots, stopping uniformed men on the streets and asking for their autographs. (Nowadays, kids want a job with a future.)

In Catch Me If You Can, director Steven Spielberg places celebrity Leonardo DiCaprio as one such kid, looking to be one of the admired and bring a sense of pride back to his family. But DiCaprio's Frank Abagnale, Jr. would rather not do it the old-fashioned way. Inspired by his father's harmless (and ultimately futile) cons, Frank embarks on a multitude of phony careers that allow him to live the high life all across the globe, always one step ahead of the FBI man who discovers his schemes. Amazingly enough, Frank's journey all happens between his sixteenth and twenty-first birthdays.

From the description, you'd think this was one heck of a jazzy caper film, but Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson want to achieve something a little deeper. While the result ends up being respectable, it also keeps this film from really taking off into greatness, as it forgets one crucial thing: we really want Frank to get away with it.

Sorry, but that's no spoiler. The film begins with Frank about to be extradited from a French prison, then flashes back over his remarkable career. But his pursuer, Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), is no Inspector Javert. Between the two men lies an uneasy respect. The FBI agent has to do his job, but a part of him understands that Frank is still really just a lost boy.

Of course, that realization comes slowly. At first, Frank seems to genuinely have it all. His father has just become a lifetime member of the Rotary Club. The family has a huge house, and parents Frank, Sr. (Christopher Walken) and Paula (Nathalie Baye) seem very much in love. Then the cracks start showing.

As Frank, Jr.'s world begins to crumble in the wake of his parents' divorce, he runs. Having learned from his father that people only know what you tell them, he moves up from impersonating a substitute teacher at his new public school to pretending to be a Pan Am co-pilot. (Actually, the movie provides a folksy phrase for this: "the Yankees always win because the other teams can't take their eyes off the pinstripes.")

Certainly, kids, it has become much harder to pull off these impersonations since the sixties, so don't try them at home. But these are some of the most fun moments in the film as Frank discovers the power of pulling the wool.

Quickly his cons move up to forging checks, as living a pilot's lifestyle takes money. Playfully seducing a bank teller, he learns the ins and outs of how checks get processed, and how someone could keep a step ahead of the system. This catches the attention of Hanratty, and the two even meet face to face early on. But Frank is just too clever, and Hanratty has never read The Flash. So when his quarry claims to be Secret Service agent Barry Allen, only the geeks in the audience know the truth.

(In a nod to fanboys everywhere, it is a teenaged waiter in a coffee shop who points out The Flash's identity to Hanratty. Once again, it was a more innocent age when such a revelation really would be a clue that his perp was underage.)

Though we get swept up in the fun, Spielberg won't let Frank or us really revel in it for long. Even Frank's dalliance with a high-priced model turned prostitute (Jennifer Garner - yes, of Alias and Daredevil) is supposed to be teaching us a lesson about what Frank has lost, and how really lonely he has become. But really, it warrants the observation that more hookers should take checks.

Soon enough the thrills become rueful. Impersonating a doctor, Frank really just wants to be accepted into a normal family. When his candy-striper fiancée (Amy Adams) brings him home to New Orleans to meet her district attorney father (Martin Sheen), Frank chucks it all to become a lawyer.

He begs his real father to tell him to stop. And he keeps reaching out to Hanratty, desperate for some form of discipline in his life.

Because this film stars DiCaprio and Hanks, it works less obviously than it has a right to. Their cat and mouse game has a charm that keeps rising above the dangerous pathos of the material. Now that's he's free of heart throb status (or is he?), DiCaprio can remind us again that oh, yeah, he's also an incredibly good actor. And for the first time in a while, Hanks even pulls out a lot of his old comedic mannerisms.

Unfortunately, the film goes on just a little too long, determined to show us that Frank needs redemption. At one point, it provides a perfect light ending (allegedly hitting a note that the real Frank's autobiography ended on), but then keeps going into the inevitable fall. Maybe it wouldn't be as important a film without such a coda, but we really didn't need it.

Even the score keeps trying to convince us of the movie's importance. Instead of swinging music, John Williams delivers a pseudo-suspense track right out of Bernard Herrmann's work on Psycho. That score may have an ironic edge to it now, but it wasn't originally intended to be funny, making an odd source for homage.

Oh, well. It still keeps hauling itself back up into cool. For one thing, it gives Walken the best role he's had in years. Spielberg allows him to indulge all his quirks and yet keeps him grounded enough that we always believe his character. You might even wish your dad was more like him, and who ever thought that could happen?

Catch Me If You Can isn't the tour de force that it wants to be, and yes, it probably could have been. What remains won't waste your time, and serves as a pretty good holiday movie. It's just a little too easy to look past the pinstripes.

What's it worth? $7.50

Derek McCaw

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