Catch Me If You Can
The prolific Steven Spielberg's new comedy-of-sorts is "Catch Me If You Can," starring Leonardo DiCaprio as (the real life) Frank Abagnale, Jr., a troubled teenager who in the 1960s impersonated an airline pilot, a physician and an attorney, all the while forging and passing checks in staggering amounts, in the U.S., Spain, Germany, France and England, and all before he was 19 years old. It's an amazing story, evidently true, and it even has an unexpectedly happy ending.
Frank worships his father, Frank Senior (Christopher Walken), a sad but devious store owner trying to fend off the IRS as they charge him with a sequence of financial scams. He always has an excuse, always blames someone else for his troubles, and always lectures young Frank on the injustices of the system. He had married a beautiful Frenchwoman (Nathalie Baye) whom he met when as a soldier in World War II he was stationed in her small town; but she, having seen ahead to the dead end of their marriage, is now having an affair, and soon they divorce. Now young Frank leaves, promising to make his father proud, and the deceptions begin.
Young Frank is a natural at conning people, convincing them that he is what he pretends to be. He is a quick learner and covers his mistakes well. But as the paper trail of his kited checks grows, an FBI agent is assigned to his case. It is Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), who has spent years patiently tracking down bank frauds. Hanratty is a weary man, sitting well off the fast track for promotion, but he is tenacious beyond belief. It is the cat and mouse game between the two that provides the film with its best moments.
And this is a film of moments, with a slackness that is only partially due to its length (140 minutes), but more due to a repetitious screenplay that tends to treat each scam in the same way. Yes, it's understandable that Frank would have only a limited repertoire of tricks and cons, and would repeat them again and again; but it is the screenwriter's (and director's) responsibility to find new meaning in each, and here they do not.
After DiCaprio's shallow and unfocused performance in "Gangs of New York" I was especially curious to see what he would do with Abagnale. When we meet him as a young teenager - and as fresh-faced as DiCaprio is he can no longer play an adolescent - he is the sad worshipper of his sleazy father. As he grows into his deceptions, aging up to nineteen, he shows a brighter, almost feverish face. Ultimately, after having somehow passed the Louisiana bar and becoming engaged to a na´ve young woman whose father (Martin Sheen) is a state's attorney, Hanratty comes close enough to force Frank to literally escape to Europe in a daring maneuver.
Everything DiCaprio does in the film is believably Frank Abagnale, Jr.; but the character itself is without depth, and so DiCaprio's performance remains on one note.
Hanks, on the other hand, is required in this film to move outside his comfort zone and give us the portrait of a dull, plodding man devoted solely to making things come out right; and he is by far the most interesting person in the film. He never wavers in his role and therefore fascinates us with a kind of mystery that resides inside him. We're never quite certain if that careful persona hides a volcano inside, or whether what we see is just what we get.
Steven Spielberg is probably the most perfectly competent film director working today, by which I mean that he can do anything, make any shot, create any effect, compose any sequence, and complete any film exactly as he wishes; but that there is always a kind of cap, a lid, on top of the film that keeps everything under control. It is the kind of talent that can make a perfect film but not a great one. Even "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan," his most powerful films, lack what you might call the cosmic resonance of great art. They are just that little bit too neat, too tied down, to enrage us, hurt us, force us to be better beings than we want to be; they lack the qualities that only the greatest of art forces us to confront.
Here he does not take that artistic last step up from the story of Frank and Carl, the step that lets us know how close we ourselves are to what we see on screen. Had he done that we could truly call him great.