Baseball fans know that the problem with a perfect game is that it’s boring. The pitcher has thrown a work of art—no hits, no home runs, no sacrifices, no bottom-of-the-ninth heroics—but the genius is in the details, not the highlight reel.
For some critics, that may also be the problem with Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can. It isn’t boring, but even when it makes a top-ten list (like Elvis Mitchell’s in the New York Times) it’s dismissed as a lightweight entertainment slipped in between the epic buckets of popcorn Spielberg’s been serving up for nearly a decade. “Spielberg must have sensed he owed us some fun,” David Denby wrote in the New Yorker.
Catch Me if You Can is set in the mid- and late 60s, the jet age, when airline travel connoted glamour instead of cattle-car drudgery. Inspired by the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr., it concerns a teen check forger who in the process of scamming nearly four million dollars successfully impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, and a journalist (although that last one almost anyone can get away with).
Fleeing a home broken by divorce, Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) finds it easier to exist in his outrageous fantasy world than to make the painful choice of which parent to live with—his philandering French mother (Nathalie Baye) or his tax-cheat dad (Christopher Walken). His schemes roll along beautifully until he draws the attention of FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks).
Who knows—maybe people were thrown off by Spielberg and his old pal Martin Scorsese trading places this season. Scorsese released Gangs of New York, a fat-budget epic of questionable historical accuracy, but he doesn’t have Spielberg’s talent for convincing us that his movie is at least as important as the actual history. And Spielberg chose to shoot the intimate, personal film critics used to dare him to make. Unlike Scorsese, he’s too much the entertainer to sell it as the sort of personal tour of the soul that Scorsese insists Mean Streets and Raging Bull are.
But to see the merits of Catch Me if You Can, you have to put it in the context of Spielberg’s life. According to Joseph McBride’s Spielberg biography, the teenage Spielberg took a path similar to Frank’s, escaping his own parents’ divorce and finagling his way into the offices of his idol, grizzled Hollywood vet John Ford, much as Frank does with the president of Pan Am in Catch Me if You Can. Spielberg has also claimed to have snuck onto a Universal lot and sat himself down at a desk, posing as a director. McBride debunked that story, but the fact that Spielberg kept telling it, even after his initial successes, is more to the point. This film is as close to roman a clef as he has come.
Catch Me if You Can is one of those deceptively slight offerings that manages to reveal more about its maker than the intended masterpieces often do—it has that Between Important Pictures feel of Ford’s The Quiet Man, Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, Coppola’s The Conversation, or Scorsese’s King of Comedy. Compared to recent Spielberg, yes, it’s light—in fact it makes a show of being light from the get-go, with Pink Panther-ish credits set to an infectious faux-Mancini theme. But for most of the past decade a trip to the movies with Spielberg has been like a visit to D.C.’s National Mall—we’ve toured his monuments to slavery (Amistad), the Holocaust (Schindler’s List), World War II (Saving Private Ryan), and Great Men (his completion of Kubrick’s A.I.). Even when he directs a summer sci-fi flick (Minority Report) it’s positioned as redefining the genre. He’s already given notice that he’ll film a Civil War biography of Abraham Lincoln (A.L.?). After all that, how could Catch Me if You Can look like anything more than a glass of New Year’s Eve bubbly?
But the tone turns out to be as false as Frank’s checkbook. It’s not Blake Edwards’s effervescence Spielberg is after, but rather the lithe, hungry feel of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows—the heavily autobiographical first feature of the celebrated French director (and costar of Spielberg’s Close Encounters), which documents his broken home and the acts of juvenile delinquency that landed him in reform school.
Like The 400 Blows, Catch Me if You Can alternates scenes of domestic strife with its lead’s escalating crimes. Some scenes appear to be direct references to Truffaut: Frank, like the young Antoine Doinel, is the one to discover his mother’s infidelity; a shot of DiCaprio running with a check-making machine recalls a shot of Jean-Pierre Leaud doing the same with a stolen typewriter. But Catch Me if You Can is never purely an homage, and where Spielberg leaves Truffaut behind is where the film emerges as one of his most insightful.
Truffaut was only 26 when he wrote The 400 Blows, but even nearing 40 he was still brooding about a lonely postwar youth spent in juvie halls and ratty cinemas. “Even today, when I hear an adult reminiscing regretfully about his childhood, I tend to think he has a very poor memory,” he wrote in the introduction to Four by Truffaut, a 1971 collection of screenplays.
Spielberg, now in his mid-50s, supplants Truffaut’s punk bitterness with a middle-aged man’s broader view of life. Spielberg’s told enough stories of hopelessly broken homes (Close Encounters, The Color Purple), guys proving their worth (Duel, Schindler’s List), and innocents making their way in a corrupt adult world (E.T., Empire of the Sun). A.I. and Minority Report were about adults trying to piece their families back together. In Catch Me if You Can the director lays that burden on an emotional adolescent and refuses to maneuver him into a happy ending. Rather than find a way for the loving son to save his dad, Spielberg shows us Frank senior’s gradual decline. The last we see of the man we met as a community business leader is at a bar. In a close-up, he’s drunk and rambling about the IRS; the camera pulls focus to reveal the U.S. Post Office patch on his jacket.
Catch Me if You Can‘s been called nostalgic, but here again the surfaces are deceiving. The 1960s are painted with the same glossy irony Ford applied to Ireland in The Quiet Man. The trappings of the era are used to disguise Frank’s loneliness and desperation, but they only do the job for so long. He sits alone at the movies watching Goldfinger, then buys himself three Bond suits and an Aston Martin and checks himself into the Ritz, where a model picks him up in the hotel hallway. But the girl turns out to be a hooker who’s homed in on him because he looks rich. Whenever nostalgia crops up, it inevitably melts away like sugar into black coffee.
Later Frank falls in love for real. But he’s become as deceitful and pathetic as his own parents, and it’s a love wrapped up in lies. A kid as corrupt as the adults around him in a Spielberg film? E.T., phone home.
It takes Tom Hanks’s Agent Hanratty to pull Frank’s world together. Hanks’s comic Joe Friday squareness allows him to play as outraged over a bounced check as other movie cops do child murders. Attired in dark suits and hats—the better to soak up Frank’s innate sparkle—Hanratty always seems to pace linoleum floors under fluorescent lights. When Frank calls him on Christmas Eve, the scene echoes a hundred cop-and-criminal cat-and-mouse games. But Frank isn’t a psycho—he’s just a lonely kid on Christmas.
In The 400 Blows‘ closing moment, Antoine, having escaped reform school, stands on a beach, staring out at the ocean with nowhere to go. But Hanratty eventually catches Frank and has him released to help the FBI catch other frauds. They end up sitting across a desk from one another, the apprentice and master, or son and father, the teen Spielberg and old John Ford. Frank never rebuilds his family. He does what you do in life—he moves on, makes one of his own, grows up. No dinosaurs, no Nazis, no historical gravitas. All Catch Me if You Can offers is the execution of a simple story, one that in the telling reveals Spielberg as a master director—even without the highlight reel.