Judge Clark Douglas once successfully posed as a mediocre writer.
The true story of a real fake.
"Where you going tonight?"
Facts of the Case
Before Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio, Titanic) reached his 19th birthday, he had successfully impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer. He had traveled the world and written several million dollars worth of fraudulent checks. Catch Me If You Can tells the story of Frank's wildly colorful exploits, as well as the investigation into his activities led by the unrelenting FBI Agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan).
Catch Me If You Can wasn't originally supposed to be "A Steven Spielberg Film." Sure, Spielberg had been attached to produce for a long time, but the film was initially to be directed by Gore Verbinski. A host of assorted delays and casting changes took place, and Spielberg only took the reins after the likes of David Fincher and Lasse Hallstrom had passed. Despite its somewhat rocky trip to the finish line, it seems that everything happened precisely as it was supposed to happen: the film is a frisky, funny and surprisingly melancholy gem that served as an enjoyably retro change-of-pace for Spielberg after the grim near-futures of A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report.
The film's opening credits are among the most memorable of recent years, an animated game of cat-and-mouse between an elusive identity thief and a federal agent. It sets the audience up for a playful crime caper, and there are certainly more than a few scenes that deliver precisely the sort of movie that credits sequence promises. However, the film is deeper and sadder than its bright palette and cheeky humor suggest. Spielberg frames Frank's actions as a response to his crumbling family life; a Quixotic effort to repair the irreparable.
Early in the film, we witness the good-natured Frank Sr. (an excellent Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter) do something immensely charming on two separate occasions. The first time, he tells a brief fable about two mice who fall into a bucket of cream (and as so many films have taught us, no one tells stories as enchantingly as Walken). The second time, he charms a store employee into doing him a favor by bribing her with a necklace. Both occasions give young Frank an opportunity to see his father at his most successful; those little moments that fully persuade him of the notion that his father is a great man. We witness Frank attempting to mimic those moments time and time again, but they're less effortlessly effective in his hands.
Frank's more successful when he relies on his own devices; he manages to smooth-talk his way into a lavish apartment, an expensive wardrobe, cool sports cars and high-paying jobs. He eventually becomes so good at getting whatever he desires that he persuades himself that he can eventually con his separated parents into getting back together again (despite the fact that his mother has happily settled down with another man). Each time Frank reconnects with his father, the disconnect between Frank's vision of life and reality becomes more heartbreakingly stark.
Spielberg doesn't permit these scenes to overwhelm the film, but they grant a movie that could have seemed like a feather-light trifle a sense of weight and substance. Even so, the film's strong pacing and playful variations on its premise make 141 minutes feel more like 90. DiCaprio gravitates towards deeply distressed, haunted characters (shades he plays once again during a few scenes in this film), but he has such natural charisma that it's always a delight to see him essaying a more playful role. Much of the film's running time is devoted to exploring the wide variety of ways in which Frank cons his way through life, whether he's watching episodes of Dr. Kildare in an effort to figure out how to pose as a doctor or quickly formulating a way to convince a high-priced call girl to spend the night with him for free.
The cast is exceptional, with DiCaprio's lively turn ranking among his finest performances. Tom Hanks seems an unlikely choice for the brusque Hanratty (the role was originally intended for James Gandolfini), but the actor quickly makes the part his own and turns it into something special. The film does a lovely job of quietly drawing parallels between the hunter and hunted; the scenes Hanks and DiCaprio share are consistent highlights. Christopher Walken gets an opportunity to bite into a meaty dramatic role and handles it superbly, while Martin Sheen brings a compelling blend of warmth and paternal menace to a character who plays a key role in the film's second half. It's also fun to observe solid early turns from young actresses like Ellen Pompeo (Grey's Anatomy), Jennifer Garner (Alias) Elizabeth Banks (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and Amy Adams (Junebug), all of whom were just beginning to rise to prominence at the time of the film's release. The female characters aren't as rich or well-drawn as the males, but that's largely due to the fact that this is a story told from the perspective of men who—in strikingly different ways—aren't particularly good at maintaining lasting relationships with women.
Catch Me If You Can (Blu-ray) has received a superb 1080p/1.85:1 transfer that preserves the somewhat soft look of the film but still manages to maintain strong detail, vibrant colors and impressive depth. The film's visual design is a pleasure from top to bottom; delivering the sort of immersive portrait of the early '60s that Mad Men has been so acclaimed for in recent years. The film's attention to detail is more striking than ever in hi-def; in many ways it's a movie that benefits from the Blu-ray format every bit as much as a sci-fi thriller like Minority Report. Nearly all of Spielberg's films have been given impressive HD makeovers, and this one is no exception. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is another winner, highlighting John Williams' infectious score (that main title theme is such a joyously slippery piece of music) and the subtle sound design impressively. Dialogue is crisp and clear throughout. This isn't the sort of movie that could ever serve as a showcase disc in the audio department, but it's hard to find much fault with the mix.
All of the supplements have been ported over from the DVD. The behind-the-scenes material is just a bit lighter than usual for a Spielberg flick, with the featurettes included failing to go as in-depth in terms of technical detail as those accompanying many of his other films. Still, what's here is worth watching: "Behind the Camera" (17 minutes), "Cast Me If You Can" (25 minutes), "Scoring" (5 minutes), "Frank Abagnale: Between Reality and Fiction" (15 minutes), "The FBI Perspective" (7 minutes) and "In Closing" (5 minutes). You also get a photo gallery.
Catch Me If You Can is holding up quite impressively a decade after its initial release, and some of its economic commentary arguably manages to make it more relevant than ever. It demonstrates a side of Spielberg's talent (and DiCaprio's, Hanks' and Walken's, for that matter) that we've seen too little of and earns an unreserved recommendation.
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