Is Spielberg too big for small tales?

Times Staff Writer

If Steven Spielberg ever decides to write an autobiography, he might consider naming it after the title of his latest film, “Catch Me If You Can.” A frothy entertainment about a quick-change artist by the most nimble quick-change artist in American movies, the film traces the life and picaresque criminal times of a 1960s teenager who for a few blissed-out years pretended to be an airline pilot, a pediatrician and a lawyer. After going over to the dark side with “Minority Report,” Spielberg has returned to the sort of lost paradise where he has always been most at ease as a storyteller, never mind that these days even paradise can seem cramped for a filmmaker of his ambitions.

In 1964, Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) ran away from home to join a circus of his own design. Torn up over the divorce of his parents (Christopher Walken and Nathalie Baye), the 16-year-old hopped a train to New York City whereupon, after deducing that he couldn’t get along by legitimate means, he tried to cash a few bad checks. Since bank tellers wouldn’t fall for a con from someone who looked like Dobie Gillis, Abagnale decided on another tack. Heeding the adage that the suit makes the man, the teenager, whose premature gray hair and thick build made him look a good 10 years older, donned a Pan Am pilot’s uniform that, along with a wallet stuffed with phony identification, allowed him free range across the world.

His path was ludicrously unencumbered. Always the fox, Abagnale smooth-talked his way into Pan Am corporate headquarters where, posing as a high-school reporter, he elicited information about pilot credentials and protocol. Once outfitted, he paid for his new lifestyle by soaking off Pan Am logos from airplane models and applying the decals to checks that tellers and hotel clerks were all too happy to cash.

At a time when most of his peers were worrying about grades and getting to first base, the teenager, who earned the tabloid-ready nickname of the Skywayman, cut, forged and even printed one bad check after another. A kid in a grown-up’s candy store, he eventually conned his way through $2.5 million in swank hotels, fast cars and women before, just in time for adulthood, he was busted at age 21.

As written by Jeff Nathanson, Abagnale’s spree was defined by despair over his father’s failed business and his parents’ divorce. This is a brittle foundation on which to build a film -- much less explain a life of crime -- but Walken, who’s rarely called on to tap into the vulnerability beneath his spooky otherworldliness, does his part to put across this oedipal drama. A small-time businessman who made himself bigger than life, Frank Sr. seduced his family with talk of better, richer times that never materialized. When he dances his wife across the family living room, the piercing look he shoots his adoring son sums up the desperation of a man who can’t stop the lies for fear there will be nothing left if he does. The pathos of the character was that he was right; the pathos of his son is that the kid didn’t know his father was running a con on his own family.


Although he ran away, Abagnale never escaped his father or his lies. According to the screenplay, Frank Jr. even found something of a surrogate father in the FBI agent (Tom Hanks) who chased him across the world. A lightweight heavy dressed in regulation suit and tie, his doughy face wadded into a grimace, Hanks’ G-Man looks like a Blues Brother with no sense of fun, which makes him an ideal foil for Abagnale’s hi-jinks. Like Walken, Hanks gives the story emotional heft and necessary ballast to DiCaprio. Having shed the weight he carries in “Gangs of New York,” DiCaprio easily persuades in the role of a boy pretending to be a man and he slips through the beginning of “Catch Me If You Can” like quicksilver. Where he and the film run into trouble are the director and screenwriter’s efforts to wring deeper meaning out of Abagnale’s exploits, which is when the quicksilver turns to lead. Abagnale didn’t bash any old ladies over the head during his six-year spree. An amiable cheat, he led a charmed life of victimless crime. Or so he has vigorously maintained in the years since. If it’s difficult to buy Abagnale’s claims that none of the clerks or tellers he gulled landed in trouble, it’s even harder to resist the fantasy of the guy who gets away with it with a wink, a smile and no bloodshed. It’s a fairy tale this country of over-workers rarely tires of revisiting, whether “the art of the steal” (the name of one of Abagnale’s books) is worked by an escape artist like perennial bank robber Willy Sutton or in effervescent amusements like “Paper Moon” and “The Sting.”

You can see what attracted Spielberg to the story, especially in the churning emotional wake of “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” and “Minority Report.” Abagnale’s appeal as a minor mythic figure lies in his evanescence, the breezy un-complication of his character and the gentleness of his grift. If the director had let him get away with just being a rogue on an extended lark then “Catch Me If You Can” would be as irresistible as one of its subject’s wild scams. In its detail and sweep, the production is immaculate -- the candy-colored coordinates and the Googie flourishes embroidering this Playboy Neverland are all melt-in-the mouth delectable, and the fluidity of the filmmaking serves as another reminder that there isn’t a more technically skillful director working in American movies.

Yet for all his genre-hopping and shape-shifting Spielberg seems to have become too big to tell small stories, which is one reason why the film sputters on one too many false endings, as if the finale needed to be important enough to justify the director’s involvement. However true, Abagnale’s anguish winds up tediously overblown. . Lots of kids endure their parents’ bum marriage, but it’s not every child of divorce who lands on the most wanted list -- and has such a blast in the bargain. It seems, though, that Spielberg has also become too much a moralist to let anyone catch a free ride. Once the most lighthearted of pop artists, he now persists in shepherding the audience on the straight and narrow. The irony is that Abagnale has said at 16 that all he wanted was the girls.


‘Catch Me If You Can’

MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sexual content and brief language.

Times guidelines: Some chaste lovemaking and adult language.

Leonardo DiCaprio...Frank Abagnale Jr.

Tom Hanks...Carl Hanratty

Christopher Walken...Frank Abagnale

Martin Sheen...Roger Strong

Nathalie Baye...Paula Abagnale

DreamWorks Pictures presents a Kemp Co. and Splendid Pictures Production, a Parkes/MacDonald Production, a Steven Spielberg film, released by DreamWorks. Director Steven Spielberg. Writer Jeff Nathanson. Based on the book by Frank W. Abagnale and Stan Redding, “Catch Me If You Can.” Producers Steven Spielberg and Walter F. Parkes. Director of photography Janusz Kaminiski. Production designer Jeannine Oppewall. Film editor Michael Kahn. Costume designer Mary Zophres. Music John Williams. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.