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Catch Me If You Can

(2002) *** 1/2 Pg-13
140 min. DreamWorks. Director: Steven Spielberg. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Nathalie Baye.

Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can--the tale of the invention of a self-made con-man--could be the projection of its maker's inner workings. Could the self-portrait of America's alpha filmmaker be found somewhere between the characters of Tom Hanks's square, middle-aged professional and the youth he chases, Leonardo DiCaprio's dashing, conflicted swindler? Well, if this is Spielberg chasing youth--releasing two thoroughly entertaining pictures in one year (the other being Minority Report)--more power to him.

With Catch Me if You Can, screenwriter Jeff Nathanson adapts the true tale of Frank Abagnale (DiCaprio), a brokenhearted teen turned public enemy number one. Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) is a natural-born scammer whose fancy footwork slows with advancing years. When Frank's mother (French actress Nathalie Baye) loses interest in père Abagnale, the family splinters, and Frank Jr. runs off into the world. After a bit of floundering, Frank discovers he can survive by perfecting his patter and constantly reinventing himself--as an airline pilot, a doctor, a lawyer... Frank bankrolls his new lives by check kiting, and once FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Hanks) catches the scent, the game is afoot.

Catch Me If You Can depicts a more innocent time--of the late fifties' turn to the early sixties--with the collective weight of Hollywood's top talent behind Spielberg's sturdy skill. Composer John Williams provides a limber, Mancini-influenced score (get a load of the throwback, animated credit sequence). Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski paints light-motifs into every shot. Illumination's pointed presence is protean as Abagnale: the proverbial lightbulb over the head, the parodic fluorescent maze, a Christmas glow, or, indeed, its shadowy absence. Christopher Walken shows shades we haven't seen in years as a man at the bittersweet crossing where he must resign himself to living through his son. Tom Hanks wears indignity well for most of the picture, exploiting Hanratty's no-fun rule-player for comic contrast to Abagnale's to-the-hilt world-beater, but Hanks also expertly underplays the grace notes of the last act. The picture belongs, though, to DiCaprio, who does his most indelible work since What's Eating Gilbert Grape, playing a range of age and emotional vulnerability, layered with a movie star's confident wattage. The cumulative effect of these bubbles is gleefully intoxicating.

The truth of the slippery story--like Abagnale--is surely more than meets the eye, and typically reshaped for biopic convenience (Abagnale, for his part, hedges that even his own autobiography--largely written by reporter Stan Redding--exaggerated the truth). Furthermore, the filmmakers disturbingly fail to inject a female character who is more than a naïve rube, tingly prostitute, or betraying mother, betraying the story's subjective masculinity. Without excusing that sizeable sin, keep in mind that the film is not a realistic tract but pop expressionism.

High on the power of cinematic fiction, Spielberg celebrates the craft of acting itself, a lie which tells the truth. Nathanson and Spielberg remind us that we long to be the impostor but settle for being the sucker. Abagnale's hurt sends him eagerly into his fantasies and ours. When Abagnale gets swept up, in one scene, by Sean Connery's James Bond--so much so that he has to play the part--we cannot help but recognize our own need for escapism. Paradoxically, we escape by letting Spielberg catch us.

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