Set in the 1960s, Catch Me If You Can opens with a notice that the film is “inspired” by the true story of Frank Abagnale, Jr. As with any story about a con artist, separating fact from fiction may be a difficult thing, but this highflying caper works on so many levels, trying to determine where the story strays would only spoil the fun.
Frank is My Co-Pilot
PG-13 for Sexual content, brief language
Frank Jr. is an ambitious young man whose quest for fortune and glory begins innocently enough. After being forced out of their home by the taxman, the Cleaver-esque Abagnales move into an apartment and Frank enrolls in a new school. Bullied from the beginning, Junior (Leonardo Di Caprio, Gangs of New York) quickly and effectively assumes the role of a substitute teacher and instantly turns the table on the one-time bullies.
With his role model of a father (Christopher Walken, Blast from the Past) in dire straits and his mom (Nathalie Baye, Selon Matthieu) losing faith in her husband, Frank Jr. builds on this innocent foray into teaching and sets out to restore dignity to the Abagnale household.
The talented Mr. Abagnale goes on to masquerade as a jet-setting playboy pilot (well, OK, co-pilot), a doctor, and a lawyer. It takes some brains to pull off these extravagant charades and it’s fun to watch Frank Jr. succeed, more or less.
On the surface, Catch Me If You Can is a simple caper flick, the story of a boy spending millions of (non-existent) dollars and living life on the run. Refreshingly, though, the movie also features several key relationships that add layers of character development and a surprising amount of depth.
On the one hand, there’s the relationship between Frank Jr. and his father, who is also a bit of trickster, and a sincere, loving man at heart.
Then there’s the more detached relationship between Frank Jr. and his mother, whose infidelity becomes an irrational driving force behind his desire to earn the big bucks. Frank Jr. then finds himself in a world where women are available for the taking (for those with the right amount of money), and his keen interest in wealth intensifies until he finally falls for a nurse (Amy Adams, Drop Dead Gorgeous) who, at least on the surface, is sweet and innocent.
Finally, there’s the relationship between Frank Jr. and Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump), a relentless agent in pursuit of the young conman. Hanratty’s a modern day version of Victor Hugo’s tightly wound Inspector Javert; even so, he has his reasons for being the way he is.
One of the running gags in the film involves the New York Yankees and why they’re so hard to beat. Is it because of Mickey Mantle? No. It’s because of the legendary pinstripes. Frank is quick to catch on and smartly puts the concept behind the joke to practical use as he’s escorted by a bevy of beautiful teenage flight attendant-wannabes through an airport crawling with detectives in search of the boy con.
It’s the kind of moment at which director Steven Spielberg excels and it’s oddly reminiscent of the basket chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, it’s to Spielberg’s credit that the king of cinematic fantasy has built upon his past and entered a new phase of experimentation.
Following on the heels of the dark and complex world of Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can finds Spielberg at the helm of a light, spry comedy/drama. It’s Spielberg’s first stab at comedy since the bloated 1941 provided him with his one and only certifiable box office disaster. The wunderkind has learned a lot since then.
The cast is also exceptional across the board. Hanks makes the switch from star to character actor and disappears behind the glasses of his character; Di Caprio proves he’s a gifted young star with range and staying power after all; and Walken adds a lot of emotional heft to the proceedings.
While it does run a little long, Catch Me If You Can offers solid entertainment from start to finish and the cat and mouse chase between Abagnale and Hanratty leads to a twist of fate that’s both surprising and satisfying. Simply put, it’s an incredible (true) story skillfully told by a team of Hollywood talent at the top of their game.