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Catcher in the Sky

Spielberg, once more, is caught up in the thrill of the chase

Everything about Catch Me If You Can, the loosely based-on-fact tale of a teenager who swindled millions while posing as, among other things, a Pan Am pilot, a doctor and a lawyer, is breezy and easy to swallow. Its maker, Steven Spielberg, hasn't had so much fun in two decades, since he was schlepping Indiana Jones around the globe in search of a giant misplaced ashtray. Tom Hanks (as huffy-and-puffy F.B.I. agent Carl Hanratty) is having such a ball he can barely mask his grin; Leonardo DiCaprio (as pretty-boy wonder Frank Abagnale Jr., a kiddie con man who once described himself as "slipperier than a buttered escargot") doesn't even try. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has shot the entire movie so it looks like something not only set in the 1960s but made four decades ago; at first glance you might even confuse it with such effluvia as 1965's Boeing Boeing, starring Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis as playboys mounting fly girls. Even composer John Williams, normally more bombastic than 1,000 marching bands playing at once, relents and relaxes, scoring the movie with a jazzbo's hophead-hipster swing.

Catch Me If You Can is a prolonged chase scene that catches its breath during annual Christmas breaks, when Frank and Carl (or Tom and Jerry) have taunting but deep-down lonesome chats over the phone, and the director is happy to keep his foot on the gas pedal throughout. This is the film this summer's Minority Report wanted to be but couldn't, given that it was lugging around so much portentous sci-fi baggage it could barely lift its arms. Spielberg, for now, has moved out from behind the lecturer's podium and stepped back onto the entertainer's stage. Amusing, not proselytizing, is what he does best, and Catch Me If You Can is a buoyant bit of work, so deceptively light it's amazing the thing even sticks to celluloid.

You'd even be forgiven for dismissing it as harmless fun, as so many did last year with Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven; when a master craftsman has such a good time without breaking a sweat, it's easy to mistake the result for something fluffy and inconsequential. Beneath the giddy sheen lies a tale of deeper emotional resonance -- a boy on the run from parents real and surrogate -- but Spielberg doesn't seem to mind if you miss it, if you catch only the glee in his step and the glint in his lens. The movie bounds from location (a polished New York City) to location (a blinding Miami), Frank bounds from girl (Alias' Jennifer Garner as model-turned-hooker) to girl (Amy Adams as a good-hearted nurse and sucker), and Spielberg bounds back and forth from year to year. The movie opens with Frank's appearance on a game show in the 1970s, then reveals him as a shaggy inmate in a French prison in 1969, then as a clean-cut kid at his dad's Rotary Club dinner in 1963. But what we think is his fate, a fleeing felon captured at long last, is far from it. Spielberg must love this story because it comes with what he craves most: a happy ending and then some.

Frank becomes a con man with good reason, so he figures; he's not out to scam for the hell of it, not really, but to win the respect of his dad (Christopher Walken, more affable and compassionate than ever before) and to repair his parents' failed marriage. He figures that if he can make enough scratch he can get his father out from beneath the government's withering glare -- Frank Sr. is being chased himself on charges of tax fraud and forced to close his store in upstate New York -- and restore his diminished dignity. But Frank Jr., who picked up petty cons from the old man and polished them into perfection, doesn't realize some marriages don't work. He's merely a kid pretending to be an adult, and beneath the nicked pilot's uniform and forged Harvard degree and check-making machines is just a romantic naïf whose life experiences are also stolen -- and worthless. DiCaprio, looking like a teen-beat Bond, gives Frank Jr. real soul; you feel for the kid and root for him, even when he's breaking law after law.

Even Carl and Frank Sr. romanticize him: Dad's always asking the boy whether he's heading somewhere "exotic" in a tone of voice that suggest he's in on the con; he likes that his boy is up to no good. And Carl, behind the accountant's thick glasses and encased in a black suit that looks one size too small, quickly goes from pursuer to protector. Hanks, who speaks in a pinched Yankee accent but never melts into caricature, becomes yet another father who knows his boy means no real harm but can't help himself.

Both the movie and the 1980 book on which Jeff Nathanson (Speed 2, Rush Hour 2) based his screenplay exaggerate and, in Abagnale's own words, overdramatize Frank Jr.'s life: Hanratty never existed, Frank Jr. never ran to avoid choosing between mother and father and the charming young criminal who became a law enforcer has long since disavowed his life of larceny. "I consider my past immoral, unethical and illegal," he writes on www.abagnale.com. But Spielberg doesn't let the truth stand in the way of a good time, and there's nothing criminal about that.

 
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