Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:04 pm 
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A festival of panache

Steven Spielberg's 'Catch Me If You Can' is one of those movies that are almost pure fun. It's a series of bold capers in which a mere teenager fools masses of people out of tons of money -- sheer naughtiness in this lighthearted version of a true (well, mostly true) story. Along the way the boy develops a worthy opponent, falls in love and wins his girl, goes to jail and gets an early release to serve as an FBI expert on the very cons he has perpetrated.

It's not a complete lark. The young Frank Abagnale Jr.'s bold and brilliant deceptions are like the pearls squeezed from an oyster out of a point of pain-his father's humiliation and his parents' sudden divorce. Con men are often desperately inadequate (but talented) individuals who hate who they really are and have to invent lies about themselves and paper their path with stolen money.

But though imposters may be pathetic, they're capable of great daring and panache, and Frank (Leonardo Di Caprio) has more than the usual allotment of these qualities. He wasn't just talented, but very bright. His FBI nemesis Hanratty (Tom Hanks) finally gets him to reveal how he passed the Louisiana bar exams: he studied for them -- but only for two weeks! Abagnale passed as doctor and lawyer from what he learned from watching TV dramas. This is a true story (well, as we said, mostly) and the real Frank Abagnale was and is a brilliant specialist in checks and other falsified documents: today, in real life, his expertise is worth millions in annual fees for advising corporations on how to avoid fraud.

'Catch Me' is set in the early to mid Sixties, a time when airline travel had glamour and no fear, and Frank's favorite scam was to pose as an airline pilot. Much of the delight of the movie is the precise but never cloying evocation of the period and the thrill of its glamour for a daring young man. Every scene is a visual delight, but there's a light touch -- unlike Todd Haynes' heavy-handed Fifties sets in 'Far From Heaven.'

The 2002 Christmas season has unveiled two comebacks for Di Caprio. 'Gangs of New York,' though interesting, is not a successful film, and Di Caprio is miscast in it as the young tough son of a martyred Irish gang leader, Amsterdam Vallon. This is too sullen and repressed a role for the irrepressible, ebullient, risk-taking Leo. He doesn't look quite right, and he doesn't have the subtlety to show the conflict his character would feel after befriending Bill the Butcher, when planning to turn against him and get his revenge for his father's death at Bill's hands.

But 'Catch Me' is quite the opposite kind of movie: unlike the overcomplicated, conflicted, hashed up 'Gangs,' it has an admirable directness and simplicity, focusing as it does on the fundamental family issues, the string of hilarious and spectacular capers, the dramatic and funny love story with Brenda (the charming Amy Adams III) and the friendly duel with the adversary, Hanratty. For Di Caprio the role of Frank is as near as possible to the ideal one for who he is today.

Di Caprio's most successful performances are like bold exploits of fabulous pretense, most spectacularly perhaps his role as the obstreperous retarded boy in 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape.' Another bold boast of a performance is as Rimbaud in Agnieszka Holland's 'Total Eclipse.' But let's not overlook the braggadocio of Leo's work in 'Titanic,' where he dazzles the prettiest, the most well born, most desirable girl on the greatest ship that ever sailed -- and sank -- and has the bravado to save her in a final love poem of an escape.

All these Di Caprio roles also have their share of pain and anguish, and there again Frank seems ideal for him to play, because of the neediness and pain that motivates Frank's exploits, even if most of the time he is having enormous amounts of fun which we amorally tend to share. Leonardo looks supremely right for this role too, with his crisp, tidy, pretty features and his neatly cropped hair, his thin torso that fits perfectly into the tight pants and shirts of the early Sixties. Di Caprio is a bit of an eclectic clotheshorse, and rarely has an actor had a better opportunity to show off fashion as part and parcel of a role. Leo's clean-cut baby face helps him pose as under 19, when he's really 28.

By the way: in a sense isn't any actor a con artist? Isn't he a man who fools us into thinking he's someone else? That makes Di Caprio's Frank Abagnale, Jr. the definitive actor's role. And Di Caprio has always seemed to strut and charm. Or drool and charm, if need be: Scorsese has said that when he saw 'Gilbert Grape' he thought Leo was really a retarded boy. He was conned!

The movie is far from being obsessed with Frank. Hanratty (Hanks) is his essential foil, as plodding as Frank is smooth. Tom Hanks, who's become the most self-effacing, not to say saintly, of actors, isn't the lumpish pawn he was in 'Road to Perdition.' He's repressed, but there's a coyness in the way he hides his truths from his opponent when they communicate, and there's a winning warmness in his affection for Frank. Hanks on film has undergone transformations, humiliations, terminal AIDS, shipwrecks, isolation, tragic loss, and now this! --Bad, bulky suits, and the role of a bumbling, unimaginative FBI operative without particular style, or, so it appears at first, ability. For years it would seem he can't trap his target because he lacks Frank's sprezzatura. But what he does turn out to have is authentic determination, dogged loyalty to the chase -- whose serial nature is signaled by the two opponents' annual Christmas eve phone conversations.

Hank's modulation of types in his recent film performances is so subtle that it's hard to define precisely the way this one stands out, and some won't even get it. But there's not only the emerging warmth but also, under the cloddishness, a cool inwardness from the start that suggests that his steadfastness has ropes of steel and that he has the courage to maintain it no matter how foolish he may look. Hanratty is a parallel proletarian hero, balanced against Frank Jr.'s flashier one.

Chris Walken gives a fascinating performance as Frank's dad, and Martin Sheen is excellent as Brenda's.

There's one sequence among many that stands out. Frank escapes from the country by donning his pilot's blues once again to stage a recruiting session at some girls' school. Then he prances through an airport full of FBI agents, surrounded by the impenetrable camouflage of eight very pretty young women in fetching stewardesses' uniforms. This quintessential moment is so delicious it makes one want to cry. It's movie heaven. This is one of Speilberg's finest efforts, all the better for seeming effortless.

December 27, 2002

┬ęChris Knipp 2002

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