Catch Me If You Can, the 2002 true-crime caper film by Steven Spielberg, is made out of contrasting and oftentimes self-contradictory sentiments and elements. It’s brisk, breezy, and blithe, with a perpetually jazzy spring in its step, about a teenager who conned his way to riches for a few years and the FBI agent who doggedly pursued him in pre-Vietnam 1950s, cast in an attractively nostalgic hue, where being an airline pilot meant all the good things in the world—especially if you were a fake one. At the same time, however, it resembles a tragic coming-of-age tale, harsh rather than gentle, mean rather than indulgent.
Put it this way: On one hand there are the gauzily golden scenes where Leonardo DiCaprio, hidden behind his Aviators and Pan-Am pilot cap, marches through the Miami airport arm in arm with a oblivious gaggle of giggling stewardesses, who are absurdly successful in distracting police officers and law enforcement agents who are teeming around in wait for Frank Abagnale Jr., the “James Bond of the sky,” the mischievous young prodigy with quick wits and quicker feet after whom Tom Hanks runs after comically, the boyish charmer who can stroll up to an attractive teller and, with a few choice words, cause her to blush and chortle uncontrollably and fall in love while he extricates various details concerning bank checks (ah, these wonderful years that were…). Catch Me If You Can, when required, operates on a rough but sustained level of comic incredulity that is required from the audience, like a sweet adolescent fantasy.
And yet, inseparably, there is also the story of a privileged, promising young man wrecked apart by his parents’ sudden divorce and financial woes of his father and who runs away from home. He turns to forging checks and swindling millions from the banks with intuitive, innate ease, and proceeds to lie to everyone including his own father. Frank Abagnale Jr. becomes the airline pilot (and the doctor, and the lawyer as well) and flies the friendly skies, but—a telling detail—every Christmas Eve, out of forlorn loneliness, he calls the FBI agent whom he has narrowly escaped from several times to plead to be left alone. This is the epitome of miserableness, and Tom Hanks, on the other line, cackles in glee. Spoiler alert: Frank is eventually caught, and thrown in prison, after having languished for what seems to be a couple of years in a brutal, cold Marseilles lockup. But he’s given a second chance on account of his brilliant mind—working dull office hours for the same FBI department that caught him, analyzing fraudulent checks and other things that he knows. (He accepts.)
One would expect Frank Abagnale Jr., the enterprising, fearless young man who refused to be beat down by the dregs of reality, to pull a Shawshank Redemption and escape to some blue Pacific shore, and he does try—not showing up for work one day and running off to the airport all dressed up in his pilot uniform, in a last-ditch attempt to recapture the now unattainable. But Tom Hanks, wiser than he seems, knows the ultimate truth. The viewer does too, and so does Frank. Everyone knows, which makes it all the more depressing. Only half of Catch Me If You Can is sentimental and sweet, and, in context, it gets swiftly overpowered. The ending might be intended as being a somewhat “happy” one, considering the alternatives, but it is not cheerful nor does it bring a smile to one’s face. At least, it didn’t to mine.
I can’t say the sober, even quite despondent dénouement of this film lowers my opinion of it as a whole, because I can’t say I didn’t see it coming, seeing the emphasis on the non-teenage fantasy parts that forewarned an ending in tune with reality. Steven Spielberg’s love of always-complicated-never-easy family relationships (specifically father-son dynamics, one can argue) in his films has become famous, understandably so, and it manifests itself strongly here. But, although some of the exchanges between Leonardo DiCaprio and Michael Douglas, who plays his father, are touching, even wrenching, why were they there?
The thing is that Catch Me If You Can is never as profound as it could be or thinks it is, if Spielberg had been inclined to steer his ship so resolutely in that one direction, nor is it, ultimately, a fun light-hearted little gem, which, in my opinion, is what it should have been. Why can’t we just enjoy this sweet adolescent fantasy without feeling the weight of the consequences and the knowledge of the causes of Frank Abagnale Jr.‘s daring escapades, so heavy they ground the whole thing irrevocably? I feel fulfilled watching Leonardo DiCaprio charming pretty girls and living the good life while Tom Hanks huffs and puffs after him, thank you very much.
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