January 2, 2003


'Catch Me If You Can,' artful con

by Bruce Watson


During one wild spree in the 1960s, Frank Abagnale Jr. roamed the country impersonating a pilot, a doctor, and a prosecutor, leaving a trail of $4 million in bad checks. And he did it all before his 19th birthday.

Now Abagnale's best-selling memoir, 'Catch Me If You Can', has been stylishly re-told by Steven Spielberg. The film is fast, funny, sad and altogether unbelievable, although it was "inspired by a true story."

Given the truth stretching tendencies of both Hollywood and Abagnale, it's hard to know which of the film's exploits are real and which "inspired."

Take the two film facts given above. Abagnale actually spun his cons until his 21st birthday, and he kited "only" $2.5 million. But viewers who play "gotcha" with "Catch Me If You Can" will miss the movie's Gatsby-esque point - that posturing is as American as apple pie. "You know why the Yankees always win?" Frank asks.

The acting talents of Leonardo DiCaprio, Christopher Walken and Tom Hanks give the film a ring of truth it may not deserve. But "Catch Me If You Can" is so much fun, and its story so remarkable, that it's hard to care. Like Abagnale's hapless victims, the audience is totally taken in by this imposter.

Flashing back from prison to the early 1960s, 'Catch Me If You Can' reveals Abagnale as a child of the American Dream. His father (Walken) is a romantic con-man spinning stories about his war years, charming clerks to get bank loans, all the while dodging the IRS. Frank, Jr. soon learns the game, impersonating a substitute teacher on his first day at a new school. He gets away with it - for a week. Dad gives a chuckling approval and a star is born.

But the boy's world spins out of control when his parents divorce. Fleeing to the streets of Manhattan, Abagnale proves himself a quick study - a little too quick, it seems. Soon he is writing his father, promising, "I'm gonna get it all back now, Daddy."

The high-wire act of imposters is relentlessly fascinating. How do they do it? Could we get away with it? Will they get caught? Do we want them to? And are they doing it out of some hidden need for love, or are they just crooks?

Spielberg toys with these questions but focuses primarily on the father-son bond. This provides the film's poignancy, but DiCaprio, freed from his usual heroic stardom, provides the character. Alternately charming, frightened and ingenious, he is the perfect imposter.

The film's vignettes explain just how Frank did it, showing his first poses in different professions, how he counterfeited checks, won confidence and strode into a life on the run.

But the film goes the memoir one better by offering a parallel story, that of FBI agent Carl Hanratty. Hanks plays the dogged, humorless agent who rises above the film's Keystone Cops FBI to chase Frank.

For all Frank's skillful poses, the film's most deceitful con is its vision of the 1960s. Forget Vietnam, the Beatles and urban riots. For Frank, 1963-1968 was a romp through an innocent age when all the men were stupid, all the women bubble-heads and all the music pure bubble gum. Perhaps this matches the con man's memories, yet those who were there may feel, well, conned.

Conning, however, is the name of the game and Spielberg plays it as well as Abagnale himself. 'Catch Me If You Can' scarcely rivals the director's legendary films, but in story and style, it has the master's touches.

Like Frank, Spielberg knows why the Yankees always win. It isn't "because they have Mickey Mantle." It's because "people can't take their eyes off the pinstripes." Spielberg and his excellent cast don pinstripes you can't help but admire.

Thanks to Shaolin !