A story loosely based on the young adult life of Frank Abagnale Jr., a kid turned conman circa 1960s, and the FBI agent, Carl Hanratty, who tracked him down.Except, it isn’t much of a story in the plot-oriented sense; more like a series of episodic exploits that at-once detail the talents of con artistry while arcing the main character and the pains that motivate him. And yet Catch Me If You Can is never really all that significant or dramatic. It isn’t much of a suspense thriller or brooding, psychoanalytical crime-drama. No American-Greek tragedy here. This isn’t Scorsese or Coppola or De Palma or Leone. But then, the movie never tries to be any of those things either. With Spielberg at the helm, it’s all a dreamy game of smiles and charm. But it’s also a very emotional journey, as young Frank constantly struggles to escape the cold reality of a broken family by forging a new reality of his own, gliding from one check-cashed enchantment to the next, moving through different professions and lifestyles, reaping the sugary exteriors but without conscious aim.
The money and luxury is wish fulfilling for a while, but life on the lam soon proves to be a hollow existence. Frank just wants to be with people who will embrace him. He seeks household warmth, or at least a friend. Again, there’s no real unified story structure to support this, only a kind of carrousel narrative that jumps timeframes and takes audiences through different vignettes of Frank’s ever-changing adventure. There’s also Carl Hanratty, who counterpoints said venture as the lowly bank fraud agent for the FBI, playing cat to Frank’s mouse. He, too, is isolated, defined by his clerical pursuit. It’s a familiar 'cop and crook' dynamic.
Paranoid, angst-ridden characters that do a lot of shouting have since become a staple for Leonardo DiCaprio, and also a source of criticism for those who dismiss him as a one note actor. His performance as Abagnale Jr. shows a different angle. Here, DiCaprio is a sweet natured wonder boy possessing a real knack for comic reactions. His ability to portray Frank with open honesty, even when knee-deep in fabrication, exhibits both charisma and vulnerability that sheds the self-absorbed camera mugging of today’s method acting in favor of something more innocently Capraesque. Screen time shared with Christopher Walken sees the two -- a father and son relationship -- beaming for one another’s attention on different levels; Walken coolly conveys Abagnale Sr. as a once-master of the game whose waning ability to cheat the world with is 'Yankee pinstripe' philosophy reveals but a sad and feeble man.
In contrast is a turn from Martin Sheen as a southern drawl district attorney with a soft spot for romance that passes through Frank’s life fleetingly as a source of paternal affection. You’ll also spot the familiar feminine faces of Amy Adams, Jennifer Garner, Elizabeth Banks and Ellen Pompeo, each given roles (some brief, some not) with dazzling personality before hitting their own stardom. That leaves Tom Hanks as the odd man out, so to speak. Hanks does everything in sturdy, reliable fashion, servicing the character of Hanratty with his effortless low-key mannerisms; if nothing else, delivering what is arguably the greatest performance ever while eating an éclair. He chases Frank doggedly, with procedural paperwork instead of uncanny brilliance, only to then engage the conman with a fronted indifference that hides genuine curiosity. Their interaction changes over the course of the film into a lax mutual understanding.
Catch Me If You Can is as immersive of a period film as you’ll find anywhere, as its 1960s settings are replete with immaculate production/costume design. A palette of primaries, creamy pastels and Christmas ambience is radiated not through heavy saturation (as is the norm for making "colorful" movies) but with light artifacts. Spielberg and Kamiński have crafted a world where vibrant colors are filtered and slightly blown out through halos, light refraction and reflective surfaces, thus accentuating depth of field with dramatic shadows and filmic textures. It’s a stunning work of cinematography.
Spielberg is at the top of his technical game. The visuals pour across the screen like liquid in the way moving actors are micro-blocked within single takes: watch closely as Hanratty and his men enter an Atlanta penthouse with snub-nosed pistols drawn, the close-up POV shifting from one revolver to the next, each with a playful sting from John Williams’ score. Spielberg’s camerawork zigzags from cinéma vérité handheld to low, Wellesian perspectives; with classic Curtiz push-ins and even a few carefully placed Dutch angles. The director is so visually nimble here that, at times, it practically becomes a dance, one that is announced from the get-go in jazzy fashion with the opening, animated title sequence.
Key details per shot informs certain scenes with specific character traits that can be charted over the course of the film, such as Frank’s tic for tearing off labels from condiments and champagne bottles or the way Hanratty fidgets with his gun holster and flashes backward credentials. Clever editing delivers match-cut segues, including a moment where Hanratty rebukes criticism with a 'Knock Knock' joke setup that is humorously robbed of its punch-line but nonetheless rhythmically answered in the following transitional shot as two Alka-Seltzers plop into a glass of water—Who’s there?
Whole scenes that are internally funny are also juxtaposed as a means to illustrate characters and innuendos: Frank’s double-win hotel encounter with an exotic woman of the night (Garner) parallels Hanratty spending his evening alone in a Laundromat, plagued with a pink shirt gag. The movie is alive with such invention. One of its most dexterous set-pieces involves Frank’s clever evasion via misdirection at a Miami airport; a scene that dazzles the senses with visual exuberance as a party of beautiful, giggling flight stewardess prance their way down the terminal to the music of Sinatra, ending with a duped Hanratty turning to the skies above just in time to see Frank’s plane fly away.
There are some missed opportunities, I think. Spielberg can never fully pull himself away from the familial issues to explore the more capitalistic themes inherent in Frank’s monetary wizardry and manipulation of the social status. We’re privy to the process, well enough, along with a few evanescent moments of commentary, including a scene where young Frank, upon receiving his first checkbook, is told that he is now part of a "special club", but there was perhaps a greater subversive or satirical jab at the American dream (system) that was never really seized. Alas, Spielberg remains largely one tracked, but he does indeed follow it through to the fullest extent and with all cinematic prowess and influences accumulated over the course of his career.
On an adjacent note, this film continues from Saving Private Ryan to War Horse the director’s love for, and aspiration to, French cinema, seasoning his films with accents, locales, music or certain filmmaking motifs in the name of. Frank’s mother is played by French actress Nathalie Baye who appeared in a number of 1970s, post-French New Wave films under directors Pialat, Godard and Truffaut. A scene in the movie even takes place in the quaint town of Montrichard.
For anyone reading this, I highly recommend you watch or revisit Catch Me If You Can (preferably on Blu-ray release) before the month of December is up. It makes for a delectable piece of entertainment best viewed during Christmas time.