Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:20 - Released 12/25/02

“People believe what you tell them,” Leonardo DiCaprio says repeatedly in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. I’m afraid the great director might be taking his main character a little too seriously.

Catch Me If You Can claims to be “inspired by” (read: very loosely based on) the like-named autobiography of Frank W. Abagnale Jr. (co-written by Stan Redding), a brilliant con man and counterfeiting expert who, between 1964 and 1967, lived a life of intrigue that would not be believable if it weren’t true, forging millions of dollars worth of checks and masquerading as an airline pilot, college professor, stockbroker, pediatrician, and assistant attorney-general, as well as a graduate of Harvard and Berkeley universities, all before the age of 21. What’s even more amazing is that after finally being captured and imprisoned for several years, Abagnale was actually employed by the FBI, where he aided in the apprehension of people like himself. Having repaid his stolen millions and his debt to society, he has since become known as one of the world's most respected (and well-paid) authorities on check fraud and secure documents.

This is all well and good, but can the movie deliver? Well. That’s hard to say. While it’s an interesting story, somehow the presence of talents like Spielberg and Tom Hanks seems to work against the project as a whole by raising the expectation to a level that is unreachable by way of Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay. DiCaprio is believable as Abagnale, and Hanks is as reliable as always as FBI Special Agent Carl Hanratty (the detective who dogs Abagnale throughout the story and comes tantalizingly close to apprehending him several times before finally succeeding). Christopher Walken and French actress Nathalie Baye do adequately as Frank’s estranged parents, and good performances are given by numerous supporting cast members like Martin Sheen, Amy Adams, and James Brolin. But the film is vaguely disappointing given Spielberg’s stellar track record. Large credibility issues are glossed over as if they are unimportant; everyone Frank deals with is conveniently naïve, and all of his daring schemes work without the slightest hitch.

Perhaps this is one of those occasions when a truly unbelievable story must be brought a little closer to Earth in order to be sold on the screen. Even if it really happened exactly like this, it needs to be told in a way that doesn’t make it look so easy. Although Frank is seen pretending to be doctors, lawyers, etc., he’s seldom put in a position where he’s forced to think on his feet. The one exception is a scene in which, as a doctor, he is totally out of his element in an emergency room, but those around him appear too remarkably stupid to notice—again, making it too easy. We are told the most incredible stories and expected to accept them as truth simply because the other characters accept them, other characters who seem too dim and unassuming to be real people. DiCaprio exudes the charm Frank must have had to succeed, but the text makes it look like he didn’t need anything but charm.

Regardless of the outrageous elements of the plot, the talented people involved with this film made it into an enjoyable one, with all the expert technique we have come to know from them. In addition to those mentioned, the presence of longtime Spielberg collaborators like cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, with his odd angles and smoky filters, and composer John Williams, whose playful, frenetic score is different than any I have heard from him, adds yet more professional savvy to the proceedings.

I like this movie for its fun-loving tone and technical genius. But I don’t love it the way I loved Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, A.I., and Minority Report. It is an enjoyable film. It is an amazing story. But sometimes incredible stories have to be made a little more credible in order to be believed. ****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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