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Spielberg somehow manages to turn a Scorsese-esque crime picture into a Capraesque butterball

With Catch Me If You Can, Steven Spielberg somehow manages to turn a Scorsese-esque crime picture into a Capraesque butterball. The film charts a shift toward "maturity": Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), teenage check-forger, doctor-impersonator, and boy of a thousand fake identities, gravitates away from his failed small-businessman father (Christopher Walken) and toward a sort of adopted dad--the fuddy-duddy FBI bureaucrat (Tom Hanks) sent to capture him. (Hanks tries and fails to channel Dan Aykroyd's just-the-facts performance in Dragnet.) Catch Me If You Can wants to say that Frank Jr. isn't really a criminal: He just wants a father figure to spank him and "set some limits." The film perpetuates the hokum that crime is just a form of acting out--and, in the process, it loses all the gleam-of-larceny appeal that makes this kind of movie exciting in the first place.

At one point in Catch Me, Frank Jr. finally stands to catch a breath when he accompanies his candy-striper fiancée (Amy Adams) to her family's home for the holidays. Son of a criminal loser and a sophisticated tart (Nathalie Baye), Frank--a con man from his days in the crib--now finds himself in an upper-middle-class New Orleans home with the soon-to-be in-laws. Mitch Miller appears on TV and starts singing something like "Paddy, my friend, the leprechaun." Suddenly, fiancée, mom-in-law (Nancy Lenehan), and dad-in-law (Martin Sheen) all start singing: Seems that "Paddy" is the family anthem! Fiancée leaps on her daddy's lap! And finally...Frank joins in, too! Spielberg's camera pushes in tight on Frank's face in that comically emphatic way that has been familiar to the director's fans since before Close Encounters. As DiCaprio's face fills the screen, we expect Frank to be horrified by all the shamrock-colored gaiety. But that isn't what the actor has been instructed to convey. Instead of "Jesus--I could be screwing Gisele Bundchen right now!" a different thought-bubble goes up: "A mom...a dad [gulp]! Just what I always wanted!"

Paging Surrogate Father, please meet your party: Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio in 'Catch Me If You Can'
DreamWorks Pictures
Paging Surrogate Father, please meet your party: Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio in 'Catch Me If You Can'

All crime pictures feed on the same fantasy: the vicarious thrill of flouting the law. And a movie about a serial impersonator plugs into even more illicit id-run-amok pleasure. But Spielberg takes all the tawdry fun out of the genre by making Frank Jr. into another of his sensitive children of divorce. On the plus side, the opening-credit sequence captures the kinetic jangle of Saul Bass's ingenious title work from the '60s, and Spielberg stages a long set piece at the Miami Airport that's a quiet beauty. But the director's goody-two-shoes number appears to have shriveled DiCaprio, who's left with the impatient glare of a studly Big Man on Campus forced by a vengeful crew of nerdish study proctors to stay after class.

 
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