After a decade of making movies that were loaded down with heavy doses of brain power, in late 2002 Spielberg turned to something a little more light-hearted. Although it contained a lot of personal drama, Catch Me If You Can was a grand day out, a light and fun movie that didn’t ask a lot from the viewer. That doesn’t mean it was dumb or thoughtless, it just means that it didn’t have as much meat on the bone as other films that he had directed.
Catch Me If You Can tells the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr., a con artist who, in the 1960s, ran away from a broken home and made living playing a well-managed con game in which he pretended to be an airline pilot, a physician and a southern lawyer, all before his 20th birthday. It’s a fun game, as we see young Frank jumping through hurdles to keep the game afloat and stay one step ahead of the feds who are chasing him.
What comes of the film is a great colorful con game, the kind that Hitchcock might have concocted. But since this is a Spielberg film, we know that the story will exist on two levels (his films always do). The overriding drive of the story is the con that Frank is able to keep alive, but the undercurrent is that of a very sad kid from a broken home. His father and mother’s marriage fell apart when Frank was only a teenager and we see that that heartache seeded his inability to have a relationship of his own. He doesn’t relate to people unless they are part of his underhanded schemes. The only person that he really can relate to is his father (played in a lovely performance by Christopher Walken) who is a con artist in his own right.
This whip-smart script keeps the movie going, along with John Williams’ very bouncy, 60s-style score and the colorful art direction by Jeanine Oppenwall. But it’s the performances that make it work. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Abagnale on two notes: first as a con artist and second as a damaged kid trying to connect with his father. Walken is great, of course, and there are glimpses of stars who were on the rise like Amy Adams, Elizabeth Banks and Ellen Pompeo. But the most surprising element here is Tom Hanks as Carl Handrattey, the FBI agent whose job is to catch Abagnale. This is something new from Hanks. He plays a humorless guy bursting at the seams to brings this guy in and it’s a really memorable performance.
Catch Me If You Can is not great Spielberg, it’s more relaxed and fun then most of his other work. It’s biographical but it doesn’t feel urgent. It’s dark but it doesn’t feel too deep. It’s fun but it doesn’t feel frivolous. It’s the kind of Sunday afternoon cool-your-heel entertainment that you watch when you want something light but not completely mindless.