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Non-Review Review: Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me If You Can is an enjoyable little film which feels like Spielberg indulging in some sixties nostalgia, while allowing Leonardo DiCaprio to scratch yet another name off his “greatest living directors” bingo card. It’s always impressive when a movie running for two-and-a-half hours just breezes by – some might suggest that such a film is “light”, and it’s a hard position to disagree with, but I think it marks a nice change of pace from the darker movies Spielberg was directing during the first decade of the new millennium. It’s not a classic, but it’s an enjoyable piece of cinema, crafted by talented people, that moves almost as fast as its lead character.

They should cheque better next time...

It’s hard to believe that there was ever a moment when Steven Spielberg was not going to direct this film. Apparently the director wanted to remain on the film as a producer, but had approached several notable directors to bring the story to the screen. It was only when these attempts fell through that Spielberg himself stepped behind the camera, which is strange – because the movie is such a perfect fit for the director that many film fans dub it the second entry in his unofficial “running man” trilogy, with A.I. and Minority Report.

It’s a story the deals fairly directly with absent fathers, that old Spielberg chestnut, offering a rather mature reflection on them, and offering an exploration of how these things affect the children. Both lead characters, Frank Abignale and the fictional Carl Hanratty, do have some series father-related issues. Frank has watched his father become a failure, a man who has exhausted all his charm and confidence tricks, and allowed himself to become too tied down, climaxing in the collapse of his marriage – an incident that affects his son so much that young Frank runs away and never looks back. Hanratty himself is a failed father, who barely gets to see his daughter at weekends, his monomaniac fixation on Frank costing him his family life.

A terminal criminal?

As in quite a few Spielberg films, the pair hide from the problems facing them in fantasy. Whether it’s the father’s obsession with aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or the kids adopting an alien in E.T., Spielberg’s characters typically seek refuge from these mundane and realistic concerns in flights of fancy. In a short section at the start of the film, Frank appears with two imposters on Tell the Truth, a gameshow where the contestant is asked to weed out the “fake” Frank. The first Frank is asked why he became the world-famous con man that he did, and he gives an answer. The actor suggests that it was the only way to get money. Spielberg clearly considers this the lie that reveals the actor as a mere impersonator.

Even though there was a lot of money, it was never about money. Money flows freely throughout the film. It bellows and flows, it’s caught in updrafts, spills out of suitcases. When Carl finally catches up with Frank, he stops the presses and the cheques seem to flow out of the machines, and Frank isn’t frustrated or upset. He picks up a couple, but he’s more excited to see a familiar face. His antics weren’t about the money, they were about escape.

Caught in the act?

After all, his cheque scams were generating income, so why pretend to become a doctor or a lawyer? It seems that Frank spends most of the movie pretending to be something other than Frank Abignale. He never crafts his own identity, as somebody growing up must eventually, but prolongs his childhood by engaging in an elaborate series of “make believe” fantasies. Today he’s a pilot, tomorrow a doctor, next week a lawyer. He uses any number of recognisable and iconic names. As he tries to play at being James Bond (“now you,re sure this is the suit, right?”), he uses the name Fleming. When he’s a Secret Service Agent, he uses the alias of Barry Allen, “the Fastest Man Alive”, a character who is always running.

DiCaprio is great here, and Spielberg has assembled a fantastic supporting cast. Tom Hanks is always worth the price of admission, and I love his “g-man” accent (“we need a doct-ah!”). Christopher Walken gives his best performance in recent memory as Frank’s father, who is charming and debonair, even if he seems like an old hustler who simply ran out tricks. It’s performances like this which make me regret the fact that Walken has largely avoided juicy dramatic roles. Martin Sheen and Amy Adams also round out an impressive supporting cast – Catch Me If You Can features an impressive ensemble.

A pilot scheme?

Spielberg films the movie to evoke those old technicolour days of the sixties, with lots of beautiful bright-colours on screen. One can even detect the faintest hint of grain. The soundtrack samples any number of recognisable and iconic hits from that time period, including a Rat Pack song or two. Sure, some of them are a little obvious, but they add a classy air to the film, as does John Williams’ cheeky retro score.

Speaking of which, the score plays over an absolutely beautiful opening sequence which is animated with the greatest care, all bright colours set against white stick figures, with the title credits skilfully built in. It’s an effect that Spielberg would attempt to emulate with the wonderful opening credits to The Adventures of Tintin, and it perfectly sets the mood for what’s about to come. Indeed, the entire movie just has a lovely whimsical mood, even through some of the darker sequences (like when Frank is asked to pick a parent to live with after the divorce), which makes for a nice contrast with the Spielberg films around it.

Chained to a desk...

That said, there is a flipside to it. The film never feels like it’s too much. I honestly didn’t notice the runtime until it was over. However, it does feel a little light, in places. It doesn’t feel like there’s enough to really bite down into – once we figure out who Frank is and why he’s doing what he’s doing, the movie doesn’t really have that many surprises for us. It doesn’t necessarily feel like there’s pay-off, or even that the movie is really building to anything beyond the obligatory “he gets caught” or “he finally escapes” bit. Still, it’s a minor complaint, because the journey is just as important, and Spielberg takes us on a pleasant enough scenic cruise.

By the way, did anyone find the final titlecard hilarious? The movie suggests that Abignale and Hanratty “remain friends” even today. However, that seems a bit unlikely, given that Hanratty doesn’t exist. Of course, Hanratty is based on any number of agents involved in the pursuit of Abignale, but it would have been a bit more authentic to state “Abignale remains friends with the agents who caught him even today.”It just seems weird in a movie that boasts about its relative faithfulness.

Stewarding the stewardesses of tomorrow...

Still, Catch Me If You Can is an entertaining and diverting little film that provides its own little escape from reality for a little while.

12 Responses

  1. This is one of Spielberg’s best films, which says a lot. I love watching Walken in this movie, as he makes a terrific nice guy (something he rarely plays). It reminds me of his performance in The Dead Zone (another film that also features Martin Sheen). You can’t help but like the man even if he makes mistakes. I also find it interesting that Tom Hanks has teamed up with Spielberg three times, yet each role Hanks played was an odd choice. Who would expect him to play a squad leader during WWII, after all? I commend him for doing something unexpected, especially when it would be easy for the two of them to make a film where neither had to put out any effort for it to succeed.

    • I’m not so sure I’d go as far as naming it one of his best, but it’s certainly one of the highlights of the 2000-2010 era. Then agains, I enjoy his War of the Worlds, so I’m probably not the best to judge his output. And I think Spielberg gets the best out of Hanks – Hanks is an actor who plays most of his roles so effortlessly that it looks like he isn’t challenged by the material. I don’t mean that to sound like an insult, but a compliment. Literally, Hanks makes a lot of his work look so easy it’s natural, which is the key to a lot of his roles – he’s “the everyman.”

      While here he was a last minute sub for James Gandolfini, he’s clearly playing outside his wheelhouse – something even more evident in the other two collaborations. I think Spielberg pushes him, and I think that Hanks works very well being pushed.

  2. It’s fun, fast, entertaining, and features a great performance from DiCaprio that shows his real range in how he can be so charming, yet always one step ahead of everyone else around him. Great performance also from Mr. Christopher Walken as well. Good review Darren.

    • I think this was the film when I started taking DiCaprio seriously as an actor. He’d done some good stuff beforehand, but I wasn’t convinced after Titanic and The Beach that he had that undefinable leading man quality.

  3. I just watched it again. Still feel good.

    • Yep, it’s just a feel-good film. I think it might be Spielberg’s best film of the 2000s. (Although, and I concede I’m in the minority here, I do quite like War of the Worlds.)

  4. Without “Catch Me If You Can” and its highly stylized look at the ’60s, there would be no “Mad Men.”

    • I think that’s a safe observation. Although I must concede I haven’t had a chance to watch Mad Men. I’m still working through The Sopranos and Game of Thrones!

  5. With all that said Darren, and how light the film is(or may seem), I think the whole issue of trust and repercussions(except the inevitable capture of the lead) is treated rather fleetingly.
    I’m somewhat perturbed at how Spielberg just skips along and ignores the probable detriment and hurt facing each victim Frank leaves in his wake.

    For Trust, a theme (along with parental absenteeism) that (I think) is the core of the whole film- to be treated so one-sided in favor of Frank leaves a bitter taste and a sense of lack and imbalance in it’s refusal to acknowledge how a thing so fragile as trust can be employed to manipulate and used(more often than not) for one’s own selfish gain without sometimes even realizing the backlash it leaves on its victims. And this doesn’t just just go for Frank. Almost everyone here uses this for their own benefit at some point

    We could argue that Spielberg is using the lens of Frank Abignale Jnr’s innocence, lack of identity and confusion to show how oblivious he is to this reality. That he’s just running along without looking back; caught up in his own euphoria and it may be true, but to completely disregard it is another thing.

    I’m not saying it should do this(look back), nor bog itself down and highlight these….things in every instance. I’m saying it should’ve at least acknowledge it. (Carl Hanratty could’ve pointed this out collectively in one instance) and I think the film would’ve been better for it without losing any of the cheeky elements that we all enjoyed.

    Again, using such a core theme so lightly without exploring the dark aspects even slightly is taking the easy route. I’d say it’s tantamount to cheating.

    That said, i enjoyed the film on a whole. It was fun, it was funny. I enjoyed it for the most part. Good review too. Thx.

    • Thanks Michail. It’s a fair point about the way the film obscures the consequences of Frank’s actions, but I think it would have been very difficult to explore those without changing the fabric of the film. But you’re right, it probably should have acknowledged it a little clearer.

      • Thanks man! That means alot coming from u bro :-). I still think the film could hold up the same if it explored it though. That said, it really doesn’t matter much. At least we have an understanding. Thx again.

      • No worries. Always appreciate being given something to think about!

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