Some true-life stories are so bizarre, you can't quite tell them convincingly onscreen - and Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can" may be one of them. Based on the real-life con artist exploits of Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), it's a technically superb film, shining with all the usual Spielberg flair, expertly utilizing the talents of his top-notch creative team. It's also a movie that has brilliant performances by DiCaprio as Frank Jr. and Christopher Walken as his fallen father - and an enjoyable one by Tom Hanks as Carl Hanratty, the straight-laced FBI agent tracking down the young Frank.
Yet, there's a catch. The movie, good as it is, still left me feeling shortchanged. There's something missing: perhaps an attitude that would have both made "Catch" more entertaining and taken us deeper into Frank Abagnale's fascinating personality - which rivets you because of his sheer improbable genius in bilking strangers and passing bad checks. As he relates in his 1980 biography, Frank may have been one of the great con artists of the 20th Century: an incredibly precocious kid who successfully impersonated adult airline pilots, a doctor, teacher and lawyer, while passing more than $4 million in bad checks around the world - all before he was 19.
Frank's exploits begin when he runs away from home to the big city (Manhattan) at 16, fleeing the wreckage after his parents' divorce. After unimpressive stints running up credit card debt and bouncing checks, he gets an epiphany, watching some airline pilots - and he was later able to impersonate a Pan Am co-pilot so perfectly that he racked up hundreds of free flights (as a pilot "deadhead" hitching free rides in the cockpit jump seat) and began his bad check career in earnest.
Later, he successfully impersonated (and seemingly assumed the duties) of an emergency room supervising doctor in Atlanta and an assistant district attorney in Louisiana. Later still, he cut another bad check swath through Europe - always staying a jump ahead of his (fictitious) nemesis Carl, who was probably based on real-life FBI agent Sean O'Riley.
All this happened between 1966 and 1969, the era of Sean Connery's James Bond (one of Frank's role models) and the sexual revolution - after the split up of Frank Sr. and his French wife, Paula (Nathalie Baye). The triumph of the film is that DiCaprio is able to suggest exactly the mix of brains, nerves and split-second invention that enabled a teenager on his own in that era to so successfully crash the adult world and rob it blind. With his quicksilver personality, and because he can play so young and so smart, DiCaprio is a perfect actor for Frank. Equally impressive is Walken, who so well suggests a decent but incautious man whose life falls apart, that you can easily see why Frank, to some extent, might think life is a joke. Hanks, complete with clipped New England accent, comical reserve and dowdy wardrobe, makes another likable paterfamilias.
In Abagnale's breezy memoir, we're free to enjoy his chutzpah and resourcefulness, while at the same time seeing that he will be caught, should be caught. But Spielberg downplays the exhilaration of the cons, in favor of a portrayal of the shattering effects of divorce - and of showing how Frank's loyalties shift to the cop, an aspect of the story largely fictionalized.
The movie also downplays something you'd never have expected: the real-life Frank's insatiable sexual appetites. In the book, Frank makes clear that his primary motivation for a life of crime was his non-stop lust for women and sex, but Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (the writer of the two "Rush Hour" movies and the awful "Speed 2: Cruise Control") don't really play up sex. The movie is soft-focus and childlike in its visuals and the one relationship shown in detail - Frank's near marriage to the shy, sweet nurse Brenda Strong (Amy Adams) seems almost childlike too. (The analogous real-life affair was quite different.)
Through his entire career, Spielberg has generally avoided romance and comedy - an astonishing evasion for one of the most popular moviemakers in film history. And, though not completely, he avoids sexuality again here - even though his lead character was someone for whom sex was the primary motivation in life. (Spielberg seems more interested, as a motivation, in Frank's expulsion from his suburban paradise.) It may seem odd to complain that a Hollywood movie doesn't have enough sex or promiscuity - but that was the real Frank Abagnale's story. That may be why the exhilaration of watching his cons has been muffled here. In the end, both the movie and Frank's story inspire similar reactions: slick and enjoyable, expert and smart, they leave you with the spectacle of squandered talent.
3 stars (out of 4) "Catch Me If You Can"
Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Jeff Nathanson, based on the book by Frank W. Abagnale with Stan Redding; photographed by Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; production designed by Jeanine Oppewall; music by John Williams; produced by Spielberg, Walter F. Parkes. A DreamWorks release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 2:20. MPAA rating: PG-13 (language, sexual situations).
Frank Abagnale Jr......Leonardo DiCaprio
Carl Hanratty.....Tom Hanks
Frank Abagnale Sr.....Christopher Walken
Roger Strong.....Martin Sheen
Paula Abagnale.....Nathalie Baye Brenda Strong.....Amy Adams
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times