16 December 2002 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

Catch Me If You Can represents a distinct change of pace for director Steven Spielberg. This is a lighter movie than he has made in a long while, and you sense his relief that nothing much is at stake. "Catch Me" harkens back to movies made in the late '50s and early '60s. It's the age of innocence, before the counterculture, Watergate, all those other "gates" and international terrorism, a time when a kid could pull off con after con, fooling adults who should know better, because no one can imagine such deceit, and anyone can fake an ID and bluff his way around an airport.

The film pitches itself as a holiday movie with scenes of Christmas celebrations over the course of several years. Opening Christmas Day, the DreamWorks release should get off to a jolly start at the boxoffice. And the dream teaming of Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks gives the movie an added boost.

Jeff Nathanson's script is inspired by the story of Frank Abagnale, who as a runaway teen 40 years ago passed himself off as a teacher, airline pilot, doctor and lawyer over a five-year stretch, all the while cashing millions of dollars in fraudulent checks. The guy now works with the FBI, having become one of the world's foremost experts in fraud, forgery and embezzlement.

"Catch Me" sets the story up as a cat-and-mouse game between Frank and FBI agent Carl Hanratty, a composite of several agents who worked the case. DiCaprio, looking ever so boyish as Frank, stumbles into his life of crime in reaction to the trauma of his parents' divorce. He is fast-thinking and pleasure-addicted during the five-year joy ride that features the best of clothes and all the women he can handle. On the other hand, Hanks' Hanratty is a dour, humorless divorcee who gets his clothes cleaned at the Laundromat, has no family or social life and takes himself way too seriously. Adding to his surly nature, every time he closes in on Frank, his prey gives him the slip, turning him into the live-action equivalent of Wile E. Coyote.

Initially, Frank dons the uniform of a Pan Am pilot simply to cash checks. As his skills in check fraud increase, Frank realizes he can travel free on other airlines as a "deadhead" passenger. Soon he is jetting around the country.

When Hanratty picks up the scent, Frank switches professions twice, acquiring a thrilled fiancee in Amy Adams' Brenda and a job as assistant DA from an equally thrilled future father-in-law, Martin Sheen's New Orleans district attorney. Frank fakes these professions, or so the movie would have you believe, by glancing at TV shows about lawyers and doctors and being a quick study in jargon and professional demeanor.

Spielberg and his production team outfit these comic adventures with the slightly stylized look of late-'50s movies. A nifty cartoon opening-credit sequence with a jazzy, Mancini-influenced score by John Williams leads to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's bright, hazy colors and Mary Zophres' suave wardrobes.

The only notes of drabness come when Frank's father, wonderfully played by Christopher Walken, occupies the screen. A man who achieves success only to see it disintegrate when the IRS comes after him, Frank Sr. is a broken man whose fate goads Frank Jr. to action. His French-born wife, played by Nathalie Baye, flees that drabness into the arms of a more successful businessman (James Brolin), creating a further provocation to her son's criminal career. These episodes are as close as the movie cares to get to psychological insight.

While the film is briskly paced, it nevertheless runs long. Inspired by a true-life tale, the filmmakers evidently hated to leave out any juicy bits. It's an understandable failing given the supremely unlikely early life of Frank Abagnale.

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN

DreamWorks Pictures

A Kemp Co. and Splendid Pictures production

A Parkes/MacDonald production

Credits:

Director: Steven Spielberg

Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson

Based on the book by: Frank W. Abagnale Jr. with Stan Redding

Producers: Steven Spielberg, Water F. Parkes

Executive producers: Barry Kemp, Laurie MacDonald, Michel Shane, Tony Romano

Co-executive producer: Daniel Lupi

Director of photography: Janusz Kaminski

Production designer: Jeannine Oppewall

Music: John Williams

Co-producer: Devorah Moos-Hankin

Costume designer: Mary Zophres

Editor: Michael Kahn

Cast:

Frank Abagnale: Leonard DiCaprio

Carl Hanratty: Tom Hanks

Frank Abagnale Sr.: Christopher Walken

Roger Strong: Martin Sheen

Paula Abagnale: Nathalie Baye

Brenda Strong: Amy Adams

Cheryl Ann: Jennifer Garner

Running time -- 140 minutes

MPAA rating: PG-13


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