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CATCH ME IF YOU CAN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Nathalie Baye
Director:  Steven Spielberg
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Dreamworks
Features:  See Review
Length:  141 Minutes
Release Date:  May 6, 2003

“Ma’am, I’m sorry to have to tell you…your son is forging checks!”

“I’m sure we can take care of that…just tell me how much he owes and I’ll pay you back!”

“So far, it’s about $1.3 million.”

Film ****

Many films have posed the question:  just because a person has a unique talent for something, is he or she obliged to dedicate themselves to it?  Catch Me If You Can asks an entirely different one:  if somebody’s good at it, why NOT do it?

Director Steven Spielberg took a true story and crafted a terrifically entertaining movie out of it; one that has a throwback feel to the light caper movies of the sixties like Charade or some of Hitchcock’s more winsome offerings (right down to the lark of John Williams’ jazzy score and the vintage looking title sequence), but at the same time, manages to get to the heart of a very unusual character.  In it, we find humor and fun along with loneliness and poignancy. 

Frank Abignale, Jr. (DiCaprio) was a normal teenager who ended up doing extraordinary (and extraordinary illegal) things.  When his world is turned upside down by his father’s (Walken) sudden business problems and his mother’s (Baye) seeking of a divorce, he runs away from home with nothing but a modest checking account with $25 in it.

In order to survive, he begins writing bad checks…something he knows he can’t do forever…but that simple crime turns out to be the beginning of a long running and lucrative series of cons that would end up netting him over $4 million in money and goods…as well as eventually several years of prison.

How did he do it?  It’s a rather amazing tale, almost too incredible to believe.  Yet it happened.  A young kid without even a high school diploma managed to successfully pose as (and enjoy the benefits of) an airline pilot, a doctor, a lawyer and more.  All the while, he managed to develop an increasingly intricate system of forging and cashing bogus checks…you have to see it for yourself.

But of course, for every criminal, there’s a cop, and in this case, it’s  Carl Hanratty (Hanks), a no-nonsense fraud investigator for the FBI.  He’s determined to bring young Frank to justice, but it won’t be as easy as he thinks:  the boy almost always manages to stay one step ahead of his pursuer.  In fact, at one point, when Hanratty has him cornered, he gets away…again, you have to see it to believe it!

But life on the lam isn’t much of a life, even when you have money, clothes, cars, and women all around.  Trapped inside false identities he carved out for himself, and unable to reconnect with his parents, the lonely Frank actually ends up turning to Hanratty in a series of holiday phone calls as his only real connection to another human being.  In a quietly heartbreaking sequence, Frank almost gets to marry a wonderful girl who might have been perfect for him, but his web of deceit makes that kind of life impossible.

2002 was a great year for Spielberg in that he released two of the year’s best films (much like he did in 1993 with the Oscar knockout Schindler’s List and the box office tromping Jurassic Park).  In Minority Report, he used state of the art technology to create a world of the future.  In Catch Me If You Can, he employed old fashioned techniques to re-create a world of the past.  The end results were both the same:  a completely realized and believable world in which to communicate his story.  But while Minority Report garnered awe for its impeccable vision, I find myself even more amazed by what Spielberg achieved with Catch Me…an honest, well-paced, perfect piece of entertainment crafted in just over 50 days of shooting.  50 days!  Most directors would have taken three times as long to make this story with end results only half as good…to me, that sums of the magic of Spielberg.

But if it was a good year for Spielberg, it was arguably an even better year for his star Leonardo DiCaprio, who enjoyed a bit of a career renaissance with two terrific performances for two of our greatest living filmmakers.  But while his work in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York earned proper attention, he really reclaimed his notoriety as one of our country’s best young actors in Catch Me If You Can.  I’ve seen just about every film Leo has been in, and truthfully, I think this picture is his finest work to date.

Two more actors merit distinct mention:  the always affable Tom Hanks, who returns to work with Spielberg in a very different follow-up to Saving Private Ryan, and Christopher Walken, who earned an Oscar nomination for his work in a small but potent performance that’s potent and memorable.

Catch Me If You Can is, in one brief description, simply excellent storytelling crafted by one of cinema’s premier storytellers.  Steven Spielberg makes it look effortless.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Keep an eye out for Jennifer Garner in a small but memorable role.

Video ***1/2

This disc represents a solid rendering of Spielberg’s vision and Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, both of which inject the film with the look and feel of the 60s, which is both the time frame of the film and the cinematic style being recreated.  A lot of the images seem deliberately softened a tad for a warmer, more nostalgic feel.  It’s a stylistic device that works.  Grain is very minimal, and the images are free from bleeding, distortion or other artifacts of compression, while colors are warm and reminiscent of decades gone by.  Nicely done.

Audio ***

With a choice of Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks, this disc offers a better than average listening experience, considering most of the film is dialogue and situation oriented.  The biggest benefactor is John Williams’ score, which is fun and lively, and a bit of a departure from his usual dramatic music.  Jazz standards are sprinkled in for extra good measure.  Spoken words are clean and clear, and the dynamic range is formidable.  The surround channels and subwoofer add depth and ambience to livelier scenes, such as a party in Atlanta or traffic at the airport.  High marks.

Features ***1/2

A second disc holds all of the extras, starting with a “Behind the Camera” look at the making of the movie.  Steven Spielberg, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Janusz Kaminski and others, including the real Frank Abignale, Jr., share their thoughts on the story, the development, and the fast paced production.  Set and costume designers discuss the authentication of the look of the period as well.

A four part featurette with Abignale is extremely interesting, as he recalls both his years on the run and the years since going legitimate with his life and career.  Other featurettes document the casting, John Williams’ music, and even the FBI’s perspective on the story.  An enjoyable package all around without a lot of fluffy filler.

Summary:

Catch Me If You Can is proof that Steven Spielberg can work movie magic without big budgets, innovative special effects, or lengthy shooting schedules.  With a great true story, terrific cast, and storyteller’s intuition, he quietly and modestly crafted one of the year’s best and most entertaining pictures.  Highest recommendation.