Spielberg's con game shines in 'Catch Me If You Can'

Since we're a society that likes to glorify criminals as much as heroes, the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr. was destined for a Hollywood adaptation. The charming, ingenious con man led such a dazzling life that he's the perfect subject for big-screen treatment -- so much so that it's easy to overlook the amount of financial damage and broken relationships he left in his wake.

Abagnale knew how to manipulate people, and "Catch Me If You Can" (based on his 1980 autobiography) masterfully grasps that concept. The cinematic result is a terrific cat-and-mouse game that never loses momentum, even given the film's rather inflated 140-minute running time.

Director Steven Spielberg crafts a breezy tale that takes its place alongside other memorable con chronicles such as "The Sting" and "House of Games." But "Catch Me If You Can" isn't about "the big swindle" so much as a character study of a rogue crook and the agent whose quest it is to capture him.

In the mid-1960s, Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a teenager living in New Rochelle, N.Y. Although his charlatan father (Christopher Walken in his best supporting role since "Pulp Fiction") is constantly in trouble with the IRS, he idolizes the man. But his perfect world is shaken apart when his parents divorce.

With a new checkbook as his main accomplice, the boy starts exploiting his community's trusting nature by cashing worthless notes. Soon his gift for manipulation extends to impersonating a Pan Am pilot, a doctor and an attorney (with aid from studying episodes of "Perry Mason").

His advancing pattern of "bold and elusive behavior" draws the FBI to his trail, led by dogged agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). By the time Abagnale is 17 years old, he is being sought for passing $1.3 million in hot checks.

While the critical consensus is that "Catch Me If You Can" is not one of Spielberg's "major works," it's also his least flawed and most purely entertaining movie in a decade. The fact that the director for once doesn't taint his vision through an over-sentimentalized ending is in itself a mighty achievement.

Spielberg has great fun playing with the vivid colors and fashions of the mid-'60s -- a time period considered the last innocent era in America's history. A superb animated title sequence punctuated by John Williams' hipster, Mancini-esque theme instantly sets the mood for this nifty caper.


Special to the Journal-World

Tom Hanks, left, stars as an FBI agent specializing in bank fraud who pursues a fugitive young con man (Leonardo DiCaprio) in "Catch Me If You Can."

The Academy Award-winning director also culls fine performances from his Oscar-caliber cast.

The word "con" stems from the term "confidence," and DiCaprio proves full of that particular trait. The actor's talents were all but wasted in his brooding, action-hero role for "Gangs of New York." Here he seems more in his element as a charismatic mimic who uses boyish good looks to personal and professional advantage.

Hanks generously defers lead chores to his younger co-star. After a few years of taking flashier roles, such as "Cast Away," the veteran goes for his second laconic gig of the year, subsequent to that of "Road to Perdition."

Fortunately, Hanks' by-the-books G-man begins to liven up the more deeply obsessed he gets with arresting the lawbreaker.

As fascinating as it is watching Abagnale talk his way in and out of tricky situations, so too is it witnessing agent Hanratty's methods of tracking his quarry. Deductions about Abagnale are more complicated than just determining his whereabouts. When starting with virtually no information, Hanratty has to decipher other matters such as the man's age, motivation and emotional state.

What deepens the pair's relationship is the fact that there is a mutual respect -- even friendship -- between the adversaries that eventually turns into a father/son-type bonding. This factor makes the project so different from other caper movies because it allows the viewer to root equally for the fugitive and his pursuer.

Like Abagnale himself, "Catch Me If You Can" is skillful, interesting and expertly presented ... only the viewer DOESN'T get ripped off in the process.


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