There aren’t that many movies out there about con men. The granddaddy of them all has got to be The Sting (1973). There’s also The Hustler (1961), older, but more hustle than con. I haven’t seen Matchstick Men (2003) or Paper Moon (1973), but they’re on the list. They aren’t all great. The The Grifters (1990) has all the pedigree but is ultimately a JV effort from all involved. But there’s something about con men. They’re roguish charms, essential for the job, work perfectly in movies. That’s basically what movies are, aren’t they? Charming rogues, lying to us to get our money.
Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a people person. He learned a few tricks from his father (Christopher Walken) on how to manipulate people (benignly) and gain their trust. When life starts to crumble around him because of his father’s IRS and marriage troubles, Frank runs away from home. He starts flying checks to get by, but that only gets him so far. When he sees a PanAm pilot getting all kinds of love from strangers and hot stewardesses, he tries it out. His quick wit and attention to detail make him a great con man as well as check fraudster. FBI Agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) gets on his trail and spends the next six years chasing him down. By the end of things, Frank’s stolen millions. What a guy.
It’s a great movie. Let me say that at the first.
This is a part of the Leo rehabilitation program. Let’s call it the fourth step (after The Departed (2006), Inception (2010), and Shutter Island (2010)). We, of a certain gender and age, saw Titanic (1997) and thought DiCaprio was a pretty boy without any talent. Catch Me If You Can (2002) came out long enough after the fact that we should have been able to readjust our opinions. I don’t think anyone held his presence against him – we had Hanks to help with that – but I didn’t credit him with the reason for its success.
These days, we’re used to his style. It’s great. Urgent, but calm in the tense moments, energetic and intense the rest of the time. Energetic performances don’t usually work (for non-psychotic characters) because it comes off as over-wrought and unreal. I’m inclined to think DiCaprio gets by because of the high tenor of his voice.
Tom Hanks, though, is, or was, a known quantity. He used to be the kind of guy, like DiCaprio is now, that went for the big roles and sold the movie. These days, he hasn’t been able to find those kinds of roles for himself. Instead, he’s been in average-to-above-average vehicles that are medium scale filler. You (or, rather, I) don’t go see a movie because Hanks is in it. He gets me to watch the trailer, that’s about it.
Catch Me If You Can is a reminder of how good things used to be. He’s a very good actor. I don’t even want to say that he needs great material to be good. He knows how to be sympathetic. Why the fall (if fall it is)? I’ll blame it on the system. What’s better than a well-loved actor that sells tickets? Two well-loved actors that sell tickets. What’s better than that (in the mind of a movie executive)? Two well-loved actors having a romantic relationship. I don’t think of Hanks as a romantic being. His worst movies, that I can think of, fall into this two-seated vehicle category.
Hey, this is a Steven Spielberg movie and Spielberg is almost always good. Catch Me If You Can has a great combination of visuals that call back to the time without being a pastiche—which is what Moonrise Kingdom (2012), the new Wes Anderson movie, is. Spielberg uses the camera in a way that is infrequently unconventional so that it’s expressive but not intrusive. I like that. It’s the right balance. They say of Tony Blair that one of the main reasons he got the UK into Iraq was because Gordon Brown was responsible for domestic policy—you give a guy only one thing to do, he’s going to do it. I get the feeling that a lot of directors are like Tony Blair and take action to be beneficial. I don’t know about Iraq, but I do know that in movies, it’s a terrible instinct.
For the success of the movie, Jeff Nathanson really gets the credit, though for writing a terrific script that goes on for about two and a half hours but is riveting from start to finish. It’s also absolutely hilarious. It’s got to be nice to do an adaptation, why do people always screw it up? Good instincts are hard to come by, I guess.
If I had any disapproval, it would be in the lack of subtlety in, probably, two or three scene sequences. A number of highly charged events occur in Abagnale’s life. They (I say “they”, but I don’t know) decided to tell the story, like J. Edgar (2011), in a come-and-go-through-time with Abagnale’s capture in 1969 as home base. Because of this, things that have happened in or before ’69 need to be handled delicately. You need to reveal a piece of information, but if that piece closes out a story, you need to have told that story. Sometimes, they would tell the story and then the next scene is a 1969 revelation that closes it out. Too convenient to be good. But that’s a rare problem in a great script.
Great opening credits. I wonder if the same folks did Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), which was rather similar. Great music from John Williams, which is expected (but not always realized because of his propensity to steal from himself). Pretty much great everything.