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'Catch Me If You Can'

Spielberg, DiCaprio capture likable con man in 'Catch Me If You Can'

Wednesday, December 25, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When a fellow high-schooler suggests Frank Abagnale looks like the substitute teacher, instead of the transfer student he is, the newcomer takes the bait. Frank scribbles his name on the blackboard, demands silence and turns away the real sub. A con man is born.

The 16-year-old even holds a parent-teacher conference before being busted by the principal, who catches on far faster than the airlines or banks or hospital that hires him. They all buy Frank's act, fashioned from flattery, fast-on-his-feet thinking and an innate intelligence that allows him to know what questions to ask.

 
 
Catch Me If You Can

Rating: PG-13 for some sexual content and brief language.

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken.

Director: Steven Spielberg.

Critic's call:

   
 

"Catch Me If You Can" stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the master of masquerades. He impersonates a co-pilot, physician and lawyer and cashes $4 million in phony checks, all before the age of 19.

Although you might scoff at such exploits, even during the innocent 1960s when a charmer in a pilot's uniform was simply presumed to be a pilot, the Steven Spielberg movie was inspired by Abagnale's 1980 autobiography.

The movie's tone is lightweight, from the stylized credits to the soundtrack with tunes by Frank Sinatra (it wouldn't be a '60s romp without him), the Chiffons and Mitch Miller Singers. Even director of photography Janusz Kaminski paints with a bright, colorful palette; light often pours in from the windows, lending a nostalgic touch to the proceedings.

We follow the bouncing ball as Frank's idyllic life in 1963 New Rochelle, N.Y., begins to unravel. His parents -- a businessman (Christopher Walken) in Dutch with the IRS and his French wife (Nathalie Baye) -- move from a house to a tiny apartment and announce they plan to divorce. Frank takes off and never stops running, eventually landing in the bull's-eye of a dogged FBI agent named Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks).

"Catch Me" follows Frank's exploits, his sweet but impractical efforts to make things right for his parents and his own search for happiness and family. And, proving that television is a more valuable teaching tool than anyone knows, Frank picks up tips from Dr. Kildare and Perry Mason.

The movie leads you to marvel and admire Frank's ingenuity and good heart, especially when he tries to reunite a nurse with her estranged parents. If Abagnale's impersonations ever injured anyone (his real-life tenure as a doc was short-lived), you wouldn't know it by this movie. Ripping off banks and airlines is like scamming casinos; in movieland, that's a victimless crime. And in the end, Frank is given a chance at redemption.

Hanks' Hanratty is a composite based on the FBI agents who trailed Abagnale. He makes him a singularly devoted, humorless man who sacrifices everything for his job and becomes a father figure to young Frank.

"Titanic" superstar DiCaprio is youthful enough to pull off playing a teen and worldly and charismatic enough to imitate a 28-year-old (which is what he is). This PG-13 film is worlds apart from his turn in the R-rated "Gangs of New York," although the pair of performances are the definition of versatility.

Walken, with blue eyes that match Leo's, looks like he could be his father, and it's refreshing to see him play a relatively normal Joe. The cast also includes Martin Sheen, Amy Adams and Jennifer Garner, all of whom are nicely used in smaller parts.

"Catch Me," however, goes on a little too long at 140 minutes. The night I saw it, a power outage caused an unplanned intermission, which made it seem even longer. It also glosses over some of the more hurtful effects of Frank's scams, especially when it comes to one trusting woman and her family, and apparently takes some liberties with the facts.

But, in a holiday season of pictures about bloodthirsty gangs, Holocaust sufferers, Virginia Woolf and her spiritual sisters, and a Nebraska insurance actuary who begins to think his life is meaningless, "Catch Me" is welcome entertainment. It's set in a simpler time when all the airline industry had to fear was the "James Bond of sky" -- a teenager in the cockpit asking a stewardess for a glass of milk.


Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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