Like its main character, a con artist who almost never goes by the name Frank Abagnale, Catch Me If You Can tries to get by on its charm and nearly succeeds. There was polite applause at the conclusion of the screening I attended. People seemed to like the movie, not love it. And that's pretty much how I feel. I went prepared to surrender my heart, if not my PIN number, to Leonardo DiCaprio's Abagnale, the youngest person who's ever made the FBI's Most Wanted list. Alas, the movie didn't close the deal. It's entertaining, in the way that all con-job movies are entertaining. But director Steven Spielberg seems to be reaching for something beyond entertaining. He wants us to see Abagnale as one of his children-of-divorce Lost Boys ' a Peter Pan who refuses to grow up. Personally, I always preferred Captain Hook.
And so did the real-life Abagnale, during the years when he was impersonating an airline pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, a college instructor and anything else that might allow him to cash checks and chase chicks. "Virtue was not one of my virtues," he wrote in his 1980 memoir, but finding the sucker born every minute was definitely one of his vices. Soon after his New Rochelle parents got divorced, the 16-year-old Abagnale headed into New York City, where he immediately started forging checks. Mail and credit-card fraud soon followed, but the grift for which he will long be remembered is posing as a Pan Am pilot, which in the come-fly-with-me '60s was a license to print money. It seems that no bank teller could refuse Abagnale when he showed up in his visored cap and gold-striped jacket.
Spielberg and his production team (Jeannine Oppewall dressed the sets, Mary Zophres dressed the people) luxuriate in '60s swank ' the tight skirts, the poofy hair, the Pop Art colors, the conversation pits and fondue pots. And they've resurrected the sexiness of air travel, when stewardesses proffered "coffee, tea or me" and pilots finished a close second to astronauts in America's what-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up sweepstakes. DiCaprio, who's always looked younger than he is, seems slightly absurd in his pilot's uniform, like a kid trying on his dad's clothes. But this only drives home the point that, given enough confidence, you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time. And Abagnale was nothing if not confident, especially around women, whom he regarded as ripe fruit to be plucked at his leisure.
The movie cleans up Abagnale's act, as if it were afraid of losing our sympathy. In the book, he seems more arrogant, more chauvinistic, more sociopathic. Yes, he cried himself to sleep a couple of times, but basically he cried all the way to the bank. In the movie, Huckleberry Finn has turned into Tom Sawyer, a kid who runs away from home only when he absolutely has to. Christopher Walken plays Abagnale's father, a businessman who loses his business but not his pride, and here the movie cheats in the opposite direction, turning Abagnale Sr. into a shady character. Frank worships him nonetheless; and Walken, less gargoyled this time out, earns that adoration. But it's kind of hard to read his character: Just how shady is he? And the movie neglects to mention that Frank Jr. began his life of crime by bilking Frank Sr. out of $3,400.
Details, details, all part of the movie's attempt to pin Abagnale's dirty deeds on his family. But couldn't we just enjoy what he does without being told why? Couldn't we savor his brashness and let it go at that? Does the movie have to seek his redemption and ours? "If I wanted to lay down a baby con," Abagnale wrote in his memoir, "I could say I was the product of a broken home, but I'd only be bum-rapping my parents." The movie goes ahead and bum-raps his parents, especially his mother, who leaves after his father loses his business, not before. Spielberg, whose own parents divorced when he was a teenager, must have identified strongly with this heartbroken pretender. Everybody's heard the story about how the wunderkind, when the rest of us were going to prom, snuck onto the Universal Studios lot and passed himself off as a director.
He's still passing himself off as a director, one of the greatest in the history of movies. And Catch Me If You Can doesn't do much to damage that reputation, but it doesn't do much to enhance it either. After the deep-think labors of A.I. and Minority Report, Spielberg may have wanted to take a breather. And the movie can be wonderfully breezy, harking all the way back to Sugarland Express, which cruised through the back roads of Texas. But sex and satire don't come naturally to the creator of E.T. and Schindler's List; Spielberg's just not all that hedonistic. (Remember what he did with that great swindler, Schindler, cleaning up his act, too?) Catch Me If You Can could use even more of a sexual charge, Ã la The Grifters. It doesn't seem to have occurred to Spielberg that Abagnale was living the Playboy dream, traipsing blithely through a field of bunnies.
Or maybe it occurred to him and he rejected the idea. (Tom Sawyer never had sex with Becky Thatcher.) Either way, Abagnale gets neutered. DiCaprio does a lot of acting, ushering Frank from childhood to prison, and the choices he makes are apt, even revelatory. But he may be miscast. The real-life Abagnale supposedly looked like Jim Nabors; he had to con women into sleeping with him. The reel-life Abagnale looks like...Leonardo DiCaprio! But at least the Titanic star is worth watching again. He more than holds his own in his scenes with Walken, and he and Tom Hanks get a nice game of cat-and-mouse going. Or should I say coyote and roadrunner? Hanks plays Carl Hanratty, an FBI agent so dogged in his pursuit he barely takes time out to breathe. And despite a Boston accent that fades in and out, he's as enjoyable as ever.
The other FBI agents are given the Keystone-cop treatment, but Hanratty is a pillar of moral rectitude ' i.e., a father figure. Which means that, for the second time in as many weeks, DiCaprio plays a guy who must choose between a good dad and a bad dad. And one of the nice things about Catch Me If You Can, as with Gangs of New York, is that the choice isn't clear. Walken's bad dad has nobility and charm, perhaps even honor, whereas Hanks' good dad is little more than a paddle with which to spank Frank into the straight and narrow. Their final scene together is a model of restraint, especially coming from a director who loves close encounters of the moist kind. By refusing to sentimentalize Hanratty, Spielberg shows signs of his own growing maturity.
Paradoxically, the movie may be too mature. It's at its best when Frank's pulling off his childish scams, soaking model airplanes in the bathtub, then removing the Pan Am decals with a pair of tweezers and adhering them to payroll checks. Speaking of paradoxes, Abagnale, since paying his debt to society, has accumulated a small fortune by showing companies how to prevent the crimes he once committed. It's one of those only-in-America success stories, and you have to wonder what a director like Robert Altman would have done with it. Spielberg tries to be a bad boy, allowing Abagnale to have his way with us. But he can't keep himself from attaching a tidy little moral: I'm depraved on account of I'm deprived...of my parents. It's the old family flimflam, proving once again that Spielberg is both an artist and a con artist.
Catch him if you can.