Catch Me if You Can

January 16th, 2003 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, James Brolin

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Because Hollywood is such a mass of politics, the names on the billboard often have very tenuous connections to the movie.

Just like some movies will go through several rewrites (2000’s Charlie’s Angels went through no less than eight screenwriting teams) but credit only one, name directors can pick and choose their level of involvement.

Catch Me if You Can director Steven Spielberg has been embroiled in similar speculation before. Even though 1982’s seminal ghost flick Poltergeist was credited to the direction of Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), insiders said that Spielberg was so hands on, Hooper might as well not have bothered showing up.

And after a distinguished 25-year career peppered with instantly recognisable titles, it now seems clear that Spielberg sometimes assigns some film grad lackey to direct a project he wants his label on.

After ground breaking films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, ET, Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan, how else do you explain 1941, Goonies, the woefully disappointing AI and now this?

While it’s not a bad movie by any means, the words ‘Director’, ‘Steven’ and ‘Spielberg’ on any project generate a unique kind of excitement. A reputation precedes a Spielberg-directed film that his work over recent years (and increasingly often) hasn’t lived up to, and Catch Me if You Can is the sort of directing job he could have done in his sleep.

It lightly borrows from the story of Frank Abagnale Jr., the youngest person to ever make the FBI’s notorious ten most wanted list.

At sixteen, Abagnale (DiCaprio) watches his family fall apart under the financial pressure of an IRS investigation into his father’s business and is determined to make something of himself to give back to his beloved father what hard luck has taken away.

Trouble is, he never becomes anything but a good (and lucky) actor. Using the gaps in big business administration systems for the next several years, Frank passes himself off as (among other things) a pilot for Pan American airlines, a hospital pediatrician and a prosecutions lawyer, passing increasingly sophisticated fraudulent cheques worth millions.

Two steps behind him all the way is Agent Carl Handratty (Hanks), for whom catching the young conman is an obsession.

Very Spielbergian themes like that of father and son are explored, including a pivotal device where Abagnale gets into the habit of calling Handratty from hiding every Christmas Eve. Handratty realises early on that it’s simply because the young trickster has nobody else to talk to, having been on the lam from his parents for years.

Abagnale’s adventures (and constant outpacing of the buffoonish FBI) make for some great comedy, but that’s where the mood loses its way. You’re never sure if you’re watching a straight comedy with dramatic undertones or a drama story played for some (albeit genuine) laughs.

Likewise, Hanks character — the straight-laced career FBI agent — changes from a bumbling nerd to a wise father figure depending on the scene. Hanks’ considerable acting talent is on extended leave throughout the whole film and the character is left very one-dimensional.

As Abagnale, DiCaprio shows the full force of his acting skills and gives a pretty straightforward movie hero character more depth.

It’s not that you won’t laugh and it’s not that you won’t enjoy yourself, it’s just that by the time it’s over you’ll wonder why Spielberg, Hanks or anyone else with such capacity for making extraordinary movies bothered.

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