2002, DreamWorks. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Jennifer Garner, Christopher Walken, Nathalie Baye, Amy Adams, Martin Sheen.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Indulgent treatment of con-artist exploits and nonmarital sex; a reference to abortion; limited profanity and vulgar language.
By Steven D. Greydanus
The week after I graduated from high school, I went through a second high-school graduation at a neighboring high school, using a fictitious name. For no particular reason — just as a lark.
It wasn’t hard. I was at the high school hanging out with a friend whose graduation date was a week after mine, and I ended up going through the commencement rehearsals with him. It was a large class, and no one knew everyone else, and during rehearsals students lining up to proceed to the podium would simply whisper their names to an announcer who would then repeat the names into a microphone. During practice, I gave the name "Glenn Kaiser" (which actually belonged to the front man of a Chicago-based religious rock band I followed at the time).
Then, after three days of rehearsals, I thought it would be fun to actually graduate.
Of course I needed a cap and gown. They weren’t hard to get. I went to the teacher who had access to them and explained, truthfully enough, that I hadn’t been issued a cap and gown. Apparently concluding that I must be have been blacklisted for failing to return textbooks or pay library fines, the teacher took me to the main office and asked for my name. Unsurprisingly, the blacklist didn’t include a Glenn Kaiser — or a Steven Greydanus for that matter — so he gave me a cap and gown. Apparently, it never occurred to him to check whether there was any Glenn Kaiser registered at the school.
So, on graduation day, I walked across the podium in front of thousands of parents, shook the superintendent’s hand, received an empty diploma cover (the actual diplomas were handed out later upon return of the cap and gown), and walked off past mystified graduates whispering after me, "Who are you?"
Incidentally, of all those in attendance, only one person, a junior acting as an usher, recognized the name of Glenn Kaiser, knew that there was no such student in the senior class, and looked up in astonishment to see me walking across the podium. Six years later, I married her.
If you find this anecdote at all amusing, you’ll probably enjoy Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. Breezy and entertaining, the film is loosely based on the same-titled autobiography of Frank Abagnale Jr., whose real-life exploits in impersonation during the 1960s make my humble stunt look like the child’s play it was.
I don’t want to give away specifics, since the element of discovery and the twists and turns of the story are part of the fun; but suffice to say that Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio), from age 16 to 21, pulls a variety of scams that afford him, variously, social status, travel opportunities, financial liquidity, and success with women, all in marked disproportion to his years.
As this suggests, he lies, steals, seduces, and bluffs his way through five years of his life, on a fairly grand scale — grand enough to make him a target for FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). However, despite its indulgent regard for Frank’s transgressions, the film emphasizes the humanity behind the misdeeds.
It does this in three ways: First, it offers some perspective on Frank’s background, on the domestic and social forces that shaped him and the events that led to his notorious career. Second, it allows a strange bond to develop between Frank and Hanratty, the man who’s trying to catch him. Third, it sees to it that he is ultimately held responsible for his actions, and turns his life around in the end.
In the first place, we see Frank’s home life as a fragile illusion. He looks up to his rather pathetic and dissolute father (Christopher Walken), and is devastated when he realizes that his mother (Nathalie Baye) is having an affair. When she begins divorce proceedings against his father, Frank simply can’t deal with it, and runs away. He stays in hotels at first, bouncing checks until one manager throws him out in the middle of the night. Frank protests, "Where am I supposed to go?" — only to be told, "You’re a kid; go home." But, of course, his home has been shattered.
Incidentally, this may be the first Spielberg movie in which the father is abandoned by the mother, rather than the other way around. Spielbergian mothers are usually seen holding their families together after being left by the father. Here it’s the mother doing the abandoning; and Frank is simply unable to endure this situation.
Focusing on his father’s financial problems as a source of the problem, Frank justifies his fraudulent activities by fantasizing that it may all eventually lead to his parents’ reunion. There’s a specific moment in the film in which this dream is lost — and at that moment Frank loses all interest in his scams and wishes to give up his life of crime and settle down (though the film finds ways to prevent him from doing that).
A poignant scene toward the film’s end gives striking shape to all of Frank’s sorrow for his lost family life. Spielberg displays here the same sensitivity to this sense of family tragedy and childhood angst that he brought to E.T.; it runs like a minor theme through the bouncy plot of the film.
Although Frank continues to try to maintain his relationship with his father, the man who really comes to understand him is Agent Hanratty. Hanks plays Hanratty as a humorless but quirky individual who becomes consumed with capturing Frank. Their first run-in is a doozy, and the cat-and-mouse game that ensues is the source of much of the movie’s pleasures.
Hanratty is determined to bring Frank to justice, but he’s not out to ruin his life. When Frank calls Hanratty at the office on Christmas, ostensibly to razz him for working on the holiday, Hanratty perceptively sees through the ruse: "You didn’t have anyone else to call!" Later, Hanratty repeatedly goes out on a limb to try to help the younger man turn his life around.
Despite his character’s humorless personality, Hanks is funnier than he’s been in years. DiCaprio, too, brings just the right blend of dash and naivete to the role of a young man who would dare to claim to hold multiple advanced degrees in conversations with older professional men who could easily discover his ruse with a few simple questions. And, while he’s enough of a cad to seduce women under false pretenses, he’s also idealistic enough to offer, sincerely, to marry one of them — though he’s hopelessly simple-minded about the difficulties.
For Spielberg, as for DiCaprio and Hanks, this is a low-pressure project, a chance to kick back and have fun. Unsurprisingly, it’s as much fun for the audience as for the filmmakers. Baby boomers will especially appreciate the nostalgic attention to period detail. And, while the movie is essentially a celebration of the career of a con artist, it celebrates his cleverness and panache rather than his dishonesty, and ends on a satisfyingly redemptive note.