Despite the mostly unanimous praise and monetary success for this picture, Catch Me If You Can works best as a counterpoint to most of the films on Spielberg’s filmography - a tepid light-as-air crime comedy, mildly charming, mildy funny and mildly suspenseful, a kind of cinematic modesty rarely seen in any of his films.
Catch Me If You Can (2001) dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Leonardo Di Caprio, Tom Hanks, Martin Sheen, Amy Adams,
By Alan Bacchus
Spielberg finds his hero in the real-life figure of William Abagnale Jr (Di Caprio), a kid caught in the middle of his parents' divorce. He witnesses the self-destruction of his father (Walken), who is failing as a parent, husband, entrepreneur and in the American dream. Running away from home, Abagnale never desired to become a conman, and almost by accident he discovers ways to cheat the financial system and exploit the welcoming nature of American citizens for his own benefit. Soon Abagnale finds himself forging cheques, faking identifications of airline pilots, lawyers and doctors, and at his worst deceiving his fiancée (Amy Adams).
In writer Jeff Nathanson’s attempt to constrict the actions of William Abagnale Jr. within a two-hour script, the film comes off as a scattered montage of his life, a difficult narrative method to make work. Nathanson only partly succeeds. The depiction of Abagnale’s schemes are fun, executed not so much in the procedural detail of a crime film but with a soft swagger of a '60s sex romp. What doesn’t quite land is the plotting of the chase - that is, the character of Carl Hanratty (Hanks), the FBI agent hot on his tail.
Despite the aggressive pursuit of Abagnale, Spielberg’s tone is so pillowy-soft we feel that if he ever goes to prison it’ll be the Shawshank Redemption kind, full of charming personalities and old-boy flavour. It's part of Spielberg’s desire to retrofit the film into a Wilder-esque '60s farce, completely separated from any kind of real-world danger. The Frank Sinatra crooning show tunes hit this on the head too hard for me, a surprisingly uncreative, played-out device. The naivete and ease with which the fanciful girls succumb to Abagnale’s charms is obviously the main attraction of the film, and certainly Mr. Spielberg turns Di Caprio into a boyish playboy with ease. But it’s this artifice which props up the film.
Abagnale’s core internal struggles, his identity issues and desire to run away from his domestic conflicts, are obvious metaphors to Spielberg’s well-documented childhood and career-long affectations. That said, the casting of Christopher Walken, who acts more like Christopher Walken than an emasculated underachieving absentee father, is a distraction. I understand Mr. Walken’s unique voice cadence and now iconic persona please most viewers, but to me he’s a scene-chewer who distracts us from the important emotional relationship in the film.
Looking back on Leonardo Di Caprio’s career, before Django Unchained this was the last time he’d attempted comedy. His boyish affability is a natural for the character’s innocent charms and unassuming, and thus manipulative, nature. The rest of his career would see him wallow in self-despair and heavy, brooding tortured characters, choices perhaps made in an attempt to distance himself from his roots as a child actor in television comedy and the Titanic burden of being a teen mag sensation.
But now, 10 years later, what’s most important is how this film sits on Steven Spielberg’s filmography, admirably next to his other anachronistic and unambitious pictures such as Always and The Terminal.
Catch Me If You Can is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Pictures.