If one were to ask me who my favorite director was, my brain would probably come up with an array of choices, to the point where the answer to that question would remain unanswered. In fact, to this day, that question is still unanswered for me. Until I start seeing more acclaimed films from acclaimed directors, I feel as if an answer to that question would be unwarranted. However, one of my favorite directors would definitely be Steven Spielberg.
Say what you will about some of the choices he makes, but there is no denying that he has established himself as a versatile genius. He has an apt for making stirring, visionary achievements (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Minority Report), intense, gripping dramas (Schindler’s List, The Color Purple), and light, human comedies (The Terminal). One example of a Spielberg film that isn’t great, but not even close to being middling is the light, offbeat, and profoundly compelling 2002 film, Catch Me If You Can.
The movie is a biopic about the life of Frank Abagnale, Jr (not Abagnahlee or Abagnyalee), played by Leonardo Dicaprio. In 1963, his rather happy life with his father (Christopher Walken) and his French mother (Nathalie Baye) is interrupted when his father gets into trouble with the IRS and his father and mother soon divorce. Frank runs away and, eventually, becomes one of the world’s most competent con artists, with his crime of choice being check fraud. Before he turned 19, he had already posed as a Pan Am pilot, a Georgia doctor, and a Louisiana lawyer. However, his breezy and seemingly effortless crime spree gets interrupted when FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) tries to track Frank down and he ends up on the run.
Right from the very opening of the film, you are shown that this film is going to be something special. Online reviewer Doug Walker (The Nostalgia Critic) always says that filmmakers should use the opening credits to allure people in. He would be very proud of this film. Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson have successful incorporated three genres that I previously mentioned Spielberg as being particularly capable at: visionary, comedy, and drama.
Spielberg includes his distinctive visual style, but in a sly way, as opposed to the flashy effects we know him for. As opposed to CGI, he uses animation, clips from movies, and all sorts of cinematography tricks. He, also, fits in his brand of lighthearted, risible comedy and powerfully moving drama. Not only that, but it, also, provides a deeply engaging character study with a subtle cat-and-mouse game.
Like a lot of the great biopics, this film has a great sense of time and setting. After viewing this film, I felt like I had actually been transported to the 1960s. This film is two hours and twenty minutes long, but not once does it ever feel overwrought or protracted. It moves along briskly and easily. Another incredible thing that Jeff Nathanson has pulled off is the voluminous relationships present in the movie, such as Frank with his dad, Frank with his mom, the mother with the father, Carl with Frank, Carl with the other FBI agents, Frank with women, etc. While there is a surplus of relationships, they feel natural and don’t suffocate the viewer with the overwhelming amount. They all provide great interplay, whether it is humorous or melancholic.
Spielberg has assembled a remarkable cast. Leonardo Dicaprio gives a suave and complex performance. He and Nathanson takes a cunning, law-breaking man and infuses him with intelligence, innocence, and desperate guilt, as he slowly mentally digresses into insanity and obsession. These many nuances make his performance the best of his career so far. While he doesn’t look like the real Frank Abagnale, he, most likely, embodies the spirit and character of him, as opposed to his appearance. While DiCaprio displays eclectic emotions, the rest of the cast is serviceable, as well. Tom Hanks gives a strong, complex, and mildly obsessive performance as Carl. As an actor who has, also, appeared in some of Spielberg’s films, he has proved himself to have the versatility levels of Spielberg. I mean, he voiced a toy cowboy a year after he won an Oscar for playing a mentally challenged man. Come on.
Christopher Walken is, also, effective as the father. Walken has pulled off an incredible feat in Hollywood for years. He is one of the most eccentric actors in Hollywood, complete with bizarre mannerisms, physically and vocally. Yet, he still manages to, simultaneously, consistently find work in Hollywood and be a genuinely good actor, despite his awkward whispering and pauses. He can actually pull off dramatic moments. To be fair, while I call him out on being strange, at least he’s not starring in a Bob Clark film about a karate dog (read my previous review).
I mentioned before that Spielberg has worked with Tom Hanks previously. At the time, the only other film they’ve done together is Saving Private Ryan. However, Spielberg has, also, reunited with composer, John Williams, who may be the best film composer ever. He’s usually known for composing the grand, epic scores for Indiana Jones and Superman, but here he helms a smooth, casual score that’s both exciting and is an evocation of lounge music.
As I previously mentioned, the movie does get really dramatic, including during the last twenty minutes. I can’t spoil anything, but believe me when I say that they include some of the most heartbreaking and elegiac moments I’ve seen in film. The conclusion of the film, while not dramatic, is such a perfect way to conclude a film of this type, even if it had to be put in, seeing how it really happened. Once again, I can’t reveal it, but all I’ll say is the way they project the idea that a down-and-out man, who was popular for all the wrong reasons, can rise for all the right reasons will warrant a grin on your face.
Now, as much as I praise the film, it isn’t great and there are a few times where Frank’s motives are a bit opaque. Nevertheless, in conclusion, what do you get when you combine an amazingly versatile director with two wonderfully versatile leading actors? You get one of the most thoroughly entertaining Spielberg films ever. While it isn’t an A-caliber film, I definitely feel you should “catch it if you can.” Ba dum bum!
RATING: Three and a half stars out of four