Catch Me If You Can (2002)Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and brief language.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Amy Adams, Martin Sheen.
LVJeff's Rating: 9/10
Photo ©DreamWorks SKG. All rights reserved.
Father-Son Fantasy with a Catch
Watching Steven Spielberg mature as a storyteller over these last several years continues to be fun. Even when he takes a break from his more serious recent sci-fi offerings, he can't hide the growth in his ideals. With Catch Me If You Can, he tackles the familiar territory of father-son relationships, but this time he handles it in a pleasantly unexpected way.
The fact that a great many of Spielberg's movies address the ideal-father fantasy is no secret to his fans. This theme was usually explored from the point-of-view of a young boy or man who did not have a loving father figure. The movies usually concluded when that gap was filled in some way -- see E.T., in which the fatherless Elliot finds an unexpected friend; or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indiana Jones attempts to make a bond with his father; or Hook, where a broken father-son relationship drives the whole plot. Other movies continue to touch on the subject -- Jurassic Park's kid-hating Dr. Grant learns to be a selfless protector to a couple of children; Minority Report's John Anderton obsessively does his job to atone for his allowing his son to be kidnapped.
However, in all those movies, the ideal was the goal. Lost sons or imperfect fathers learned to find a way to attain that perfect picture of a father and the son he devotedly cares for. Now Catch Me If You Can turns all that on its head and, in the process, shows us how Spielberg may have learned to see past that flawless portrait. Here, the typical journey is reversed -- Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank Abagnale, Jr., a 17-year-old who already, in his mind, has a perfect family. He loves and respects his father (Christopher Walken), a determined shop-owner with a French war-bride for a wife. All at once, however, Frank's ideal world begins to crumble -- his mother cheats on and eventually leaves his father, and his father has financial problems exacerbated by the government breathing down his neck. It's all too much for Frank, so he runs away.
In his desperation, he utilizes a natural talent for posing as someone he's not -- like an airline pilot, for instance -- in order to find a way to make a quick buck and hopefully save his father from ruin. He also learns how to forge checks, and soon he piles up so much stolen money he buys his father a Cadillac. When he suggests that his father use it to pick up and show it to his mother, his fantasy of being able to repair his once perfect world becomes crystal clear.
Frank's journey is paralleled by the path of the man who is out to arrest him, FBI financial fraud specialist Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). Carl is a stuffy, humorless type who, slowly throughout the movie, reveals he has family problems. Although he is determined to capture Frank, he gradually develops a fatherly affection for his quarry. However, Carl never deludes himself into thinking he could find a surrogate son in Frank.
Frank, however, soon learns to make a life out of his delusions. Surviving through check fraud, he goes on to impersonate a doctor and a lawyer, partly to pursue a romantic interest, Brenda (Amy Adams). By turns hoping to re-establish his father's family unit and hoping to create a new one through Brenda's family, Frank lives in wishful yet futile desperation. When the movie is close to finishing, he creates one last delusion of having a father figure, but it is when he accepts the reality of his situation that he finally grows up. Frank learns that the ideal-father fantasy is just that -- a fantasy.
An earlier Spielberg movie might have granted Frank his wish, for better or for worse. Catch Me If You Can, however, shows a more mature storyteller at work, despite the film's perceived general light-heartedness. This is mostly good and a little bad. The movie is obviously trying to achieve a zippy feel, but the theme carries enough weight such that the pacing isn't as light on its feet as it could be. Matters aren't helped by Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's decision to light much of this movie in the same way they lit Spielberg's previous, more serious movies. The oppressive white sunlight that worked so effectively in creating dramatic atmospheres in Minority Report, A.I., and Saving Private Ryan is an ill-fit for a whimsical caper. Also obstructing the movie's thrill potential is a head-scratching flashback structure that, by nature, removes a good amount of suspense.
Yet, despite these stumbling blocks, Catch Me If You Can manages to achieve a high level of involvement. John Williams provides a wonderful, snappy retro-score; the '60's setting is created for maximum nostalgia evocation; and the strong cast delivers excellent performances. Meanwhile, the director manages to subtly mark his own evolution within this grandly entertaining movie.
©Jeffrey Chen, Dec. 25, 2002