Combustible Celluloid
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With: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Nathalie Baye, Amy Adams, Martin Sheen, James Brolin, Brian Howe, Frank John Hughes, Steve Eastin, Chris Ellis, John Finn, Jennifer Garner, Nancy Lenehan, Ellen Pompeo
Written by: Jeff Nathanson, based on the book by Frank W. Abagnale and Stan Redding
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual content and brief language
Running Time: 140
Date: 16/12/2002

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Caper Chase

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

During one scene in Steven Spielberg's new Catch Me If You Can, which opens today in Bay Area theaters, FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) drives along with his two colleagues, who accuse him of being too serious.

"Would you like it if I told a joke?" he asks them, and they reply in the affirmative. "Knock knock," he says. They answer with the expected "Who's there?" and Carl finishes them off with "Go f--- yourselves."

It's a great, hilarious scene, loaded with pokes at Tom Hanks and his movie career over the past ten years. Hanks had all but given up his natural gift for comedy in favor of ego-building, self-important overly dignified films; he hasn't made a really funny, flat-out comedy since 1990's Joe vs. the Volcano. Thank God we have him back.

Hanks had me laughing right from the start of Catch Me If You Can, as he tries to pronounce his name in a thick Boston accent to a group of burly non-English speaking guards in some undisclosed foreign country. "Kaahhl Haahhnraddy!" he screams at them over the hammering rain.

Carl has spent years trying to catch Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio), a brilliant teenage forger who has amassed millions in fraud money. Frank is waiting, imprisoned, just inside those walls, and Carl isn't about to let him go now.

In the beginning, Frank's father (Christopher Walken) finds himself in trouble with the IRS thanks to a bad bookkeeper.

At the same time, finding himself an outcast at school, Frank gets a taste of his mission in life by impersonating a substitute teacher.

But his parents go through a rough patch and decide to split. On the verge of their divorce, Frank runs away from home, grabbing only the checkbook (with $25 in the account) that his beloved father gave him for his birthday. Frank learns quickly that a bounced check will not help him, and learns even quicker that a company check from Pan Am airlines will get him in the door faster than a check from Frank Abagnale.

To make the façade more real, Frank swindles himself a new pilot's uniform, which, in the 1960s, was as much a babe magnet as an electric guitar. Soon he has girls swarming all over, and he has the cash to entertain them.

Unfortunately for Frank, he falls in love with one particular girl, Brenda (Amy Adams), who works in a hospital. So Frank does most logical thing he can think of to impress her: he poses as a doctor. Then, to please her strict father, he "becomes" a lawyer at the drop of a hat.

Catch Me If You Can is one of this fall's many "based-on-a-true-story" films, but instead of treating the material as untouchable holy writ, it allows the audience the luxury of gaping in disbelief; how could this possibly have happened? And yet it apparently did.

Spielberg gives the movie a snappy, glitzy gusto of the type that he gave his early chase films like The Sugarland Express and 1941, and it's refreshingly lacking in that heavy nobility he injected into The Color Purple and nearly every film since. I guess he has a couple of Oscars now, and, like Hanks, he's happy to go back to what he does best: pure, slick, energetic entertainment films. With this and the excellent Minority Report, he's finally managed to repeat the bang he gave us back in 1981 with Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Of course, he can't resist laying on the heavy "father" stuff of most of his recent films. Does Spielberg miss his own father, or does he feel like he's missing out on fathering his own kids? Either way, Frank has a very odd relationship with his father -- totally, unquestioningly devoted. If he were a normal teenager, wouldn't he think his dad was a big loser? But it seems that everything Frank does during the film is just so that he can help his father win his mother (Nathalie Baye) -- and his dignity -- back. According to Spielberg, Frank's getting laid was only secondary in his grand plan.

In the meantime, Frank develops a kind of father-son bond with Carl as well. They speak on the phone every Christmas and occasionally meet in person just before Frank gives Carl the slip. Good guy-bad guy relationships like this always lift a movie above the standard, snarling, mustache-twirling villain. A movie works best when the hero and the villain can get together and chat over a cup of coffee.

In the end, Frank actually ends up working for the FBI, using his astonishing skills to help Carl catch upcoming forgers.

Catch Me If You Can is a blast from start to finish. Let's hope Spielberg and Hanks never lose their way again.

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