Following his success with last year"s Ocean"s Eleven, Steven Soderbergh visits the early "60s again with another richly entertaining caper flick, Catch Me If You Can. Oh wait, this one is by Steven Spielberg.
It wouldn"t be surprising if some viewers actually did get the two directors mixed up, as the latest from Spielberg marks a distinct change in form. Following the dark, sprawling futuristic epic A.I. Artificial Intelligence and the dark, futuristic action movie Minority Report, the filmmaker brightens up considerably with a tale that uses the look and sounds of the pre-cultural revolution "60s with high style. Spielberg takes what could have been the equivalent of a feature-length, live-action Road Runner cartoon and adds just the right amount of character depth to make the film emotionally satisfying. The production is inspired by the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr., who, between the ages of 16 and 21, passed millions of dollars in forged checks while successfully masquerading as a Pan Am pilot, a lawyer and a doctor (and, very briefly, as a teacher). The book chronicling Abagnale"s adventures was optioned for a film several times, but it took Spielberg to realize that the anecdotal story needed something more. As he has done throughout his career, Spielberg focuses on the effect of divorce on a child, giving the movie the emotional oomph it needed to balance out the lawbreaking hijinks. He also includes the endearingly square FBI agent Carl Hanratty (a composite of several real men), a determined pursuer who becomes the Wile E. Coyote to Abagnale"s Road Runner. Add great performances by Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale, Tom Hanks as Hanratty and the rest of a powerhouse cast, dead-on period details and a terrific hepcat score by John Williams and you"ve got the kind of satisfying caper flick that would make a perfect companion piece to Ocean"s Eleven. After a cute animated opening credit sequence that echoes many films of the "60s, Spielberg sets up the story by using a real sequence from the To Tell the Truth game show that seamlessly mixes new images with old footage. From there, the film hops back and forth between a climactic scene in 1969 France and flashbacks of Abagnale"s escapades. (SPOILER ALERT: The following reveals the basic plot of the film. Proceed at your own risk.) Sixteen-year-old Frank Abagnale Jr. had no grand plan for crime. The divorce of his con man father and opportunistic mother was so traumatic that the kid ran away. At first, the desperate boy pretends to be a Pan Am pilot simply as a means to cash bad checks. The deception goes well, so well that the gears in his head start spinning. Before long, he begins wearing the uniform to catch free flights on competing airlines and the con takes on a life of its own. Enter FBI agent Carl Hanratty, a dour man who, once assigned the case, will not give up the pursuit, no matter how many times he is given the slip. Abagnale avoids capture by switching "professions," first pretending to be a doctor, then adopting the guise of a lawyer. Along the way, he even gets engaged to the daughter of a district attorney in New Orleans. Certainly, this can"t go on forever, but when and how will Hanratty catch his prey and how hard will Abagnale fall? (END SPOILERS) Catch Me If You Can is relatively light entertainment aided immeasurably by the ability of the cast to add depth to their characters. Leonardo DiCaprio is outstanding as Abagnale, showing the fear and longing that drives the con artist. The adventures may be flashy, but his Abagnale remains a desperate son who dreams of bringing his parents back together and going home. DiCaprio also proves to be adept at showing the effect of years of running and hiding on Abagnale. Tom Hanks is equally good as Carl Hanratty, giving a remarkably layered performance that turns the grim man into a sympathetic character. Over the years, through their occasional phone calls, he becomes a credible father figure for Abagnale, while never swerving from his goal of capturing the young man. Together, DiCaprio and Hanks provide the sense of substance that makes the airy tale soar. Christopher Walken does some of his finest work in years as Abagnale"s screwed up father, and Martin Sheen is fine as the deluded New Orleans DA. The female cast - Nathalie Baye as Abagnale"s mother, Amy Adams as his fiancee and Jennifer Garner as a model-turned-call girl - is also strong, though the screenplay decidedly skews toward the males. I won"t go into how the movie differs from the real story. Suffice to say that while there are numerous changes, the film captures the essence of it all (at least I think so - remember, the book offers truth as told by a con man). Details of how Abagnale pulls off the cons grow fewer and fewer as the film rolls on, but momentum carries us over the shakier moments. The only bit that flounders is a courtroom scene with Abagnale impersonating a lawyer. Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson wrote a scene that draws a laugh from viewers with a slow pullback of the camera, ý la sit-com style. The real Abagnale, who would have seen what we only witness during the punchline, would never have acted the way the character does. That vignette is a minor annoyance in a bounty of pleasures, however. Catch Me If You Can successfully takes an astounding book and turns it into a movie that is stylish, funny and even touching.