Movie Review: CATCH ME IF YOU CAN as Steven Spielberg’s Stealth Autobiography
Funny that a breezy, effortless romp like Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can would turn out to be the director’s most personal film, but time has been very kind to this one, revealing depths left mostly unexplored during its Christmas 2002 release. Back then, critics assumed Spielberg was working in a minor key. Ever the work horse, he had released two films that year, this and Minority Report, and the studio marketed that dark, serious thriller as the main course; Catch Me If You Can was strictly a dessert course, or a really top-shelf digestif.
And to the film’s credit, you can watch it as a lark and walk away satisfied. As Frank Abagnale Jr., a teenage conman faking his way to fame and fortune, Leonardo DiCaprio has never been more likable or engaging (the then-twenty-seven DiCaprio was scarily convincing as a fifteen-year-old), and Tom Hanks more than matches him as an FBI agent whose befuddled, bookish demeanor belies a keen criminal investigator. Jeff Nathanson’s script is sharp and funny, riffing on 1960s crime classics like The Italian Job and Topkapi, and it allows for vivid character turns from the likes of Nathalie Baye, Martin Sheen, Frank John Hughes, Elizabeth Banks, Ellen Pompeo, Amy Adams, and Christopher Walken, who received a much-deserved Academy Award nomination for his work as Frank’s elegantly suffering father. Behind the camera, Spielberg brings his traditional visual wit (one setpiece, where Frank finds himself escaping the FBI’s clutches on his wedding night, ranks right up there with the best of Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark), which gets a lift from DP Janusz Kaminski’s sun-kissed cinematography and John Williams’ bouncy, jazz-inflected score. It’s a real kick, this movie.
Yet just behind the joy, the movie wears an imperceptible layer of pain like a second skin; all the movie’s charms are just camouflaging something worse. Frank doesn’t turn to crime because he’s inexorably drawn to it – his father’s a low-level schemer, sure, but on the whole, Frank is a normal fifteen-year-old, more concerned with girls and comic books than he is with impersonating pilots, doctors, and lawyers like a JV Tom Ripley.
That all changes when the IRS audits his father, who takes such a big financial hit that the family loses all its upper-middle-class trappings. That way leads to sadness, and to divorce, and Frank finds it a far better thing to pretend he’s someone successful than watch his personal life implode. He becomes Horatio Alger with a rap sheet.
He becomes Steven Spielberg.
Many of you know Spielberg’s origin story. See the future master director, young and free and beloved by his parents. See the parents separate, and see the director upended from pre-fab suburban community to pre-fab suburban community. He retreats behind an 8mm camera to make sense of the world, and when he’s old enough, he sneaks into Universal Studios in Hollywood and starts to pretend he works there, going so far as to operate out of an empty office.
Now, Spielberg’s story avoids the large-scale larceny that Frank Abagnale Jr. perpetrated; Spielberg didn’t scam the taxpayers out of $2.5 million (fun fact, though: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull grossed over $317 million in the United States alone). But they both faked it until they made it – after Frank got busted, he began a successful career with the FBI, helping the department track down guys like himself, and after Universal realized what Spielberg was doing, they actually tossed him some television directing gigs (which begat “Nigh Gallery,” which begat Duel, which begat Jaws) – and they both had to fake it because of how dire their home lives were.
More than anything, that pain comes across so viscerally in the film. It hurts watching Frank process his family’s disintegration: his mother’s reattachment to another man, his father’s slow decline into obsolescence. I think of a recent “60 Minutes” interview with Spielberg, and I am reminded again of his own story, how he learned late in life that it was his mother’s infidelity, not his father’s, that tore his childhood apart, and how he agonized over demonizing his dad for so many years. Spielberg makes Frank suffer in the same fashion, with these beats standing in marked contrast to the rest of the film – Spielberg doesn’t play anything here for laughs, just inescapable sadness.
End of the day, what are watching? Two children of divorce who turn to make-believe for salvation. That sensation is as personal as it gets for Steven Spielberg, and it gives Catch Me If You Can its uncommon resonance.
Paramount’s Blu-ray looks and sounds better than the film did in theaters circa 2002 – the picture is film-like and almost three-dimensional in its textures, while the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is deceptively immersive, placing the viewer into its richly designed soundscape.
Features are very good. We get six behind-the-scenes featurettes (“Catch Me If You Can: Behind the Camera,” “Cast Me If You Can: The Casting of the Film,” “Scoring: Catch Me If You Can,” “Frank Abagnale: Between Reality and Fiction,” “The FBI Perspective,” and “Catch Me If You Can: In Closing”) which, taken together, comprise about as thorough a making-of documentary as I could imagine. The supplements also get a series of photo galleries.
As frothy romps go, this is one of the best: breezy, fun, and deceptively melancholy.
Catch Me If You Can streets on December 4th. Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.
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