In my review of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I spoke about the misconception that darker films are inherently better or more substantial. If Steven Spielberg's film demonstrates that darkness can severely backfire in stories of a light or silly nature, we might logically assume that the opposite is true - namely that a serious (or in this case factual) subject matter can be handled in a fun, light-hearted way while still getting its substance across.
This brings us on to Catch Me If You Can, a later Spielberg effort covering the early life of teen fraudster and con artist Frank Abagnale Jr.. It takes the potentially grim and gritty subject matter of confidence tricksters and spins us a merry yarn about the excesses of youth whose protagonist is always empathetic. While it perhaps doesn't go as far into its subject matter as perhaps it could have done, it's still a sterling piece of entertainment with a lot of heart behind it.
Catch Me If You Can has an interesting production history, in which any one change could have drastically altered the finished product. Having been passed around the studios for 20 years since the book rights were first optioned in 1980, the project began to gain traction in 2000 when David Fincher signed on to direct. Fincher later jumped ship to make Panic Room, being replaced first with Gore Verbinski, then Lasse Hallstrom, Milo Forman and finally Cameron Crowe before Spielberg himself opted to direct.
In each case, the director's subsequent output gives us some idea of how they would have approached Abagnale's story. Fincher would have brought an edgy undercurrent to proceedings, focussing on the mental state of Abagnale and the ease with which he was able to fool the system. Verbinski would have handled the story incompetently while doing some justice to the period detail, just as he would later do with Pirates of the Caribbean. Both Hallstrom and Crowe would have made things much more sentimental, playing up the father-son relationship at the expense of the actual cons. And Forman... well, on the basis of Goya's Ghosts, it would have been rather dull.
In the end, Spielberg was the right person to direct this film. Regardless of his reputation or the influence he wields over the industry, the story of Catch Me If You Can is perfect for his sensibility. It has many of the elements which have characterised his best work: light-hearted adventure, a celebration of American values, a son searching for his father and a dry, often joyous sense of humour. While direct comparisons with Indiana Jones are a little misleading, this is as close as he's come to Indy for some time, at least in terms of entertainment.
The first big success of Spielberg's film is putting us in the period. The opening credits are quintessentially 1960s, with animated versions of the characters dancing out of the way of the various names. John Williams' score is playful and upbeat but with a whistful undercurrent, bringing to mind the iconic theme music for the Pink Panther series. While Monsters, Inc. used the 1960s look as juxtaposition to its funky CG animation, Catch Me If You Can uses it to great effect to acclimatise us before we've even seen our leads.
The good visual work continues after the credits with some lovely period details. Janusz Kami?ski, who has worked with Spielberg since Schindler's List, offers up a colour palette of appealing pastel colours, harking us back to a more innocent, carefree time. Having been a teenager in the early- and mid-1960s, Spielberg clearly has a firm understanding of the fashions, manners and institutions of the period. No skirt seems too short, no car too modern, and no expression out of context or added purely to make the characters seem old-fashioned.
While it doesn't revolve around the FBI enough to properly constitute a spy thriller, Catch Me If You Can is still the closest that Spielberg has come to making a James Bond film. He'd expressed an interest in doing so after 1941, with George Lucas pitching the original idea for Raiders of the Lost Ark as "better than James Bond". The film is fantastically paced so that two-and-a-half hours just fly by, with the thrill of the chase being beautifully balanced by more thoughtful and suspensful moments.
It would be foolish, however, to think that Catch Me If You Can was all about surface, with no deeper ambitions other than recreating the period setting or providing a thrilling chase. Arguably the best thing about Spielberg is his ability to convey meaningful, often complex ideas through scenes and stories which appear to be totally frivolous. In this instance, he returns to one of his familiar themes of a father-son relationship, using a familiar device in his work to tease out the deeper motivations behind Abagnale's tomfoolery.
Much like E. T. twenty years before it, Catch Me If You Can examines how divorce can severely impact the well-being of the couple's children. In the midst of Frank's great capers, which con honest people out of millions of dollars, we get scenes of Frank having often torturous discussions with his father, whose fortunes decline as Frank's rise. These meetings are a device on Spielberg's part: in reality, Abagnale never saw his father again after leaving home at 16. But the change comes with the blessing of the real-life Abagnale: even at the height of his exploits, he would fantasise about his parents getting back together.
Frank begins conning as an act of determined rebellion against the old order. He sees his father, an upstanding pillar of the community, suffering as he goes through life doing things the right way; as much as he loves his father, he resolves never to end up like him. There's a through-line with Goodfellas here, with both films justifying their protagonists' illegal lifestyles on the grounds that living a legitimate life causes more trouble and unnecessary effort. Equally, there's a comparison with Death of a Salesman, with Leonardo DiCaprio standing in for Biff and Christopher Walken doing a very fine job in the tragic role akin to that of Willy Loman.
But while Martin Scorsese's film was deeply ironic and sought to deglamourise the life of Henry Hill, Spielberg actively courts our sympathy for Frank's actions. Spielberg commented in interviews that people were "more trusting" in the 1960s and that the film wouldn't be deemed instructional to con artists of today. While this latter statement is definitely true, there's no denying that the film is far more sympathetic towards Frank than it is towards the FBI agent hunting him down. Carl Hanratty is depicted as being like Frank's dad: seperated from his wife, driven by work, doing his best but still on the losing side (until the end).
We might dispute the value of being so sympathetic, given the differing intentions of the stories and the nature of their protagonists. But one area where Catch Me If You Can does falter a little is the mechanics of Frank's forgeries. It explains the cons in enough detail for us to follow, but it always puts the thrill of the chase over a deeper examination of how Frank managed to pull off any one scheme. On an intellectual level, it's much more Lethal Weapon 2 than To Live and Die in LA.
While there is an awful lot of pleasure to be mined from just following the chase, there are moments in the film when we are conscious of Spielberg substituting depth for something less enticing. There's no issue at all with Frank seeing his father on a regular basis, but the fact that he keeps running into Carl on Christmas Eve is so contrived that even Frank Capra wouldn't touch it. Likewise, the ending drags a little, with Frank attempting one last escape in the midst of coming to work for the FBI. Had this section been trimmed, the film might not have needed the end cards explaning Abagnale's actions after reforming.
Ultimately, these problems are allayed or rendered somehow less important through the charm of the central performances. DiCaprio's early career had seen him pandering to his pretty-boy image, but here he strikes a very good balance between fresh-faced charisma and emotional depth. Tom Hanks, fresh from a more demanding turn in Cast Away, turns in a typically fine performance as the downtrodden, long-suffering and frustrated Hanratty. Most impressive, however, is the Oscar-nominated Walken, who keeps things reined in tight to create one of his most meaningful performances in years.
Catch Me If You Can is a rollicking good romp with a good amount of heart and a trio of fine male leads. While it's ultimately as light-headed as it is light-hearted, it does get to grips with some of the deeper issues with Frank's lifestyle as well as serving up much in the way of thrills and spills. While it's not Spielberg's best film by any stretch, it is a good example of how good he can be when he just decides to have fun.