Catch Me If You Can is a Spielberg unicorn

While I love Raiders of the Lost Ark—my father was an archaeologist—I’m not keen on any of the sequels.

I have fond memories of seeing Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the theater, but I oddly don’t have enthusiasm for Jurassic Park or Jaws, (the latter of which I saw in the theater decades after its initial release, which may be why).

I hated E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; Poltergeist was more my speed back in 1982.

I find Munich and Bridge of Spies to be honorable failures, and Amistadsimply a failure.

Both A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report were muddled films that never did enough with their interesting premises and big ideas.

Always wasted Audrey Hepburn in her last screen appearance, an unforgivable sin in my book.

The screen adaptations of The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun were not nearly as good as these great books.

Hookand B.F.G., were so painful, I consider them cinematic child abuse. (Even my nephew thought WTF when I took him to see B.F.G.).  

And don’t get me started on The Post, which features the umpteenth shrill performance by La Streep.

I do concede that the Oscar-baiting Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan have some pretty astonishing moments.

What I’m saying here, is that I generally don’t like Steven Spielberg films. I find them to be too earnest or too syrupy. Perhaps they are just too middlebrow for me.

But oddly, Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can is that elusive unicorn—a Spielberg film I really like. Maybe it’s the lack of sentiment. It could be that John Williams’ score is jazzy and fleet, rather than a bombastic earworm. But likely, it’s the father/son story, my personal Kryptonite, that appeals.

Catch Me If You Can also doesn’t feel like a typical Spielberg blockbuster. There are no special effects. It’s not a warm and fuzzy film plucking at your heartstrings and jerking your tears. The tone of the film is actually subdued. And somehow in 2002, when it was made, it bested Spielberg’s flashier Minority Reportat the box office that same year, earning $32 million more than the director’s lavish sci-fi thriller.

What I admire about Catch Me If You Can is not just the improbable tale of the “outrageous imposter” Frank Abagnale, Jr., the youngest and most daring con man in U.S. history, but that the film rarely upstages the antics of its antihero. Watching teenager Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) take over his high school French classroom is delightful because viewers are in on the joke. We see how easy and clever Frank is getting information on bank checks, hospital records, even lawyering, and not just by seducing women and watching movies.

Frank displays a real charm in his con artistry, a stark contrast to the desperation his father, Frank (Christopher Walken, in a justly Oscar-nominated role) does in his attempts to get money. The younger Frank’s hero worship of this father, and his hope that his divorced parents will reunite, is typical Spielberg schmaltz, but it works here because it’s more bathetic than pathetic. An awkward lunch they have in a fancy restaurant is just heartbreaking because neither man can quite express what they truly feel.

The other father/son storyline involves Frank and Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), the FBI agent intent on capturing Frank. They play cat and mouse, and their first meeting in a hotel room, where Frank coolly eludes (and humiliates) Carl, is superb. Frank displays his ability to get out of a tight corner (I’m not counting the film’s earlier prison escape scene since chronologically, that happened later) and viewers are rooting for him. It’s smart without being slick or sticky.

The relationship between Carl and Frank works because they both kind of admire one another; Carl wants to know how Frank passed a bar exam, and Frank wants to know how Carl will catch him. Frank even calls Carl every Christmas Eve just to check up on his pursuer, and their exchanges are terrific; they know how to pick up on tells and get under each other’s skin. There’s a tension and a frisson in their scenes that makes Catch Me If You Can click.

Spielberg may overemphasize Frank’s desire for home and a family—watching Frank look through his mother’s house and her new life is a bit heavy-handed— but this is a minor drawback. Spielberg keeps the action lively for the film’s entire 140 minutes, and he coaxes fantastic performances from DiCaprio, Hanks, and Walken.

Fans of Spielberg may not rank Catch Me If You Can as one of his best, but he sure fooled me.

 

CORRECTION: This piece originally ran as part of our countdown of the best summer blockbusters of the last 25 years. Read the criteria and full introduction here, and the whole series here. However, Catch Me If You Can was released in December, which we missed when creating the list. We’ve adjusted the piece and countdown accordingly. Sorry!

Author: Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.

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