In the past two decades, Steven Spielberg has become such a pillar of society and a fount of moral rectitude (to the point of expunging threatening moments from reissues of his movies), that it's easy to forget how he landed his first professional gigs: by sneaking onto the Universal Studios lot, setting up shop in an empty office, and passing himself off as a director. Spielberg's trajectory suggests a theme that's rarely explored in American success stories: How many of the people who seize the day have to, in effect, fabricate the day.
That theme isn't exactly explored in Spielberg's buoyant Catch Me If You Can (DreamWorks), either, but the movie gets at it obliquely, in odd and unsettling ways; and it moves nimbly, breathlessly, from incident to incident, as if the director himself were staying one step ahead of the law. It's the story of a teenage con man named Frank Abagnale Jr. (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), who in the mid-'60s passed himself off as a Pan Am airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer while cashing fake checks worth more than $4 million. As adapted by Jeff Nathanson (from Abagnale's memoir, written with Stan Redding), the story is neither a comedy nor a tragedy—it's arrested halfway between a breezy, finger-popping lark and a tale of woe. It has you giggling all the way through—and feeling simultaneous dread at the certainty of its hero going down.
That's not to say that Catch Me If You Can hasn't been shaped along familiar Hollywood (or Spielbergian) lines. Unlike Abagnale's more free-form biography, the movie is the story of a boy trying to reclaim his relationship with his father—a search-for-daddy saga. Frank Jr. isn't just out to make heaps of money and to sleep with a lot of miniskirted stewardesses in pillbox hats—although both are major assets of this handsome con artist's life. It's also to get revenge against the banks and the government that have stripped his father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) of dignity and caused him to lose the woman of his dreams, Frank Jr.'s beautiful, narcissistic French mother (Nathalie Baye).
Walken has been playing bizarre psychopaths for so long now that it's astounding to see what he can do with an ordinary weak man: As a successful businessman fallen on hard times and trying unsuccessfully to hustle his way out of debt, his glassy-eyed, etherized delivery makes him seem heartbreakingly vulnerable. (The absence of that ether is what made the lucid Robert Carlyle so wrong as the daddy of all daddy failures, in Angela's Ashes .) What gives Catch Me If You Can an extra jolt of pathos is that Frank Jr. is trying to deceive his father, too. He doesn't want to impress him as a successful con man but as a popular, industrious son who can conquer mainstream America. And the fact that the father senses that his son is a fraud but doesn't have the strength to call him on it—or to set him on a straighter course—makes the movie's aura of pathos even more intense.
Frank Jr.'s nemesis, an FBI agent called Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), is largely a fictional creation: The actual agent was named O'Reilly and had only one brief encounter with Abagnale prior to the latter's imprisonment. It's the film's conceit to make them parallel figures: Abagnale the irresistible smoothie, blithely jumping from place to place, and Hanratty the dour, plodding fed with the dark suits and skinny ties and flip-up dark glasses. It's fun to see Hanks play a man without a smidgen of charm, but the character doesn't have the stature to make him a real co-star. (It's DiCaprio's—and Spielberg's—movie.)
But the script is quietly setting Hanks' Hanratty up to be something more than a rival for the audience's affection. He's the nerdy, stable father-in-waiting; the father who has to punish you—because kids who get away with too much feel unmoored and maybe even unloved. Early in the film, we see Abagnale rotting in a squalid and brutal French prison and Hanratty attempting to extradite him to the United States, to a prison where at least he'll be purged of lice and properly fed and clothed. (The main part of the narrative is a flashback.) Catch Me If You Can says that America might be square but that its squareness is part of its liberal humanism: The system lets people like Abagnale act out, and then—like good a daddy—it rehabilitates them and brings them back into the fold. (The French, by comparison, are either brutally indifferent or whores with an eye on the main chance—that's Existentialism, for you.)
The best thing about Catch Me If You Can is how easy this capitalist parable goes down. Abagnale's book has an element of how-to: how to get yourself a pilot's uniform and fake ID and pick up pilot lingo and get free flights all over the country; how to create phony bank accounts; how to pass yourself off as a doctor or lawyer. Spielberg makes it hum along, faster and more deftly than anyone else could have. It's the tale of a bounder told by someone finding the bounder in himself again—and who can't make up his mind if he's delighted or anxious to get back into that frame of mind. The result has a dramatic complexity that no Spielberg film has had since his first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express (1974).
It's also candy for the eye and ear. The production and costume designs (by, respectively, Jeannine Oppewall and Mary Zophres) feature quintessential mid-'60s colors—bold but seductively artificial. This is a universe in which the epicenter of cool is the Eero Saarinen-designed TWA terminal at JFK Airport. When it finally shows up in the film, it's so perfect that you laugh out loud at seeing that from which all else has radiated. The composer, John Williams, has concocted his most brilliant pastiche in decades: The score manages to combine finger-snapping, lounge-lizard jazz motifs (the Frank Sinatra/Henry Mancini "Come Fly With Me" fits right in) with suspenseful lines in the Jaws (1975) tradition, along with longer, more melancholy passages redolent of Leonard Bernstein and Charles Ives.
After a series of dud roles, DiCaprio is back in star form. He doesn't look like a teenager, and his spirit is a little heavy—he looks like he survived the sinking of the Titanic. But that wide face—in the Elvis Presley/Bill Clinton mold—has all kinds of riveting currents and crosscurrents. I don't know if Spielberg, Hanks, and DiCaprio had our last president on their minds, but Catch Me If You Can feels more like The Bill Clinton Story than Primary Colors (1998). It's a paean to naughty boys who dream of potency and become enraptured by their own scams—a great American archetype.