Steven Spielberg has never made a film like this one before, sharp and bright, lighthearted and witty, underplayed and — dare I say it? — hip. When Spielberg is cool — Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park — it’s a dorky kind of cool, steeped in geeky stuff like old movies and science fiction. But here he achieves a retro hipness, an early-60s, skinny-ties-and-martinis, Pink Panther kind of cool, a cool that comes not from awesomely imaginative CGI and jaw-dropping spectacle but from sheer attitude. The only other film we’ve seen lately like this is last year’s Ocean’s Eleven, and if this represents a new vanguard of insouciance, that’s just fine with me. Catch Me If You Can is way too much fun not to have some more just like it, please.
For all that Leonardo DiCaprio (The Beach, Titanic) is an angry revelation in Gangs of New York, here he’s a effervescent, farcical delight as Frank Abagnale Jr., an honest-to-goodness real guy who had an astounding if brief career in the 1960s as an imposter and thief, posing as everything from an airline pilot to Ian Fleming and swindling banks around the world of millions of dollars, all while still a teenager. Frank ran away from home and made his own circus, a personal, globetrotting carnival of adventure, girls, and the good life lived on ill-gotten means. He’s a criminal, sure, but an utterly pacifistic one, and DiCaprio imbues him with such charm and surprise at his own success that not only can we forgive him his felonious ways, we’re actually a tad jealous of his daring.
And then there’s Tom Hanks (Road to Perdition, Cast Away), as FBI agent Carl Hanratty. As a bank-fraud specialist so wonky that even his fellow agents, uptight, nerdy fellows all, tease him, Hanks is all lively concentration, corners squared and i’s dotted in his pursuit of Frank even as his Hanratty is perfectly cognizant of his own fixation. There hasn’t been as spirited and cheerfully self-aware a portrayal of obsession since Tommy Lee Jones’s U.S. marshal in The Fugitive.
Catch Me isn’t entirely fun and games. A wholly stable personality doesn’t dash off around in the world in a frenzy of fraud like Frank does, but Spielberg (Minority Report, A.I. Artificial Intelligence) demonstrates uncharacteristic restraint in showing us the strained family life of the Abagnales. The separation of Frank’s parents, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken: The Country Bears, The Affair of the Necklace) and Paula (Nathalie Baye), is what sets Frank off, and brief, intense moments — Frank’s rage at his mother’s infidelity, a subdued dismay at his father’s focus on inviting the envy of strangers — is all that’s needed to hint of Frank’s state of mind. DiCaprio’s knowing performance gives us the rest of what we need to turn all our sympathies over to him, so that when he is (inevitably) caught by Hanratty, we’re as shocked as he is.
This is everything a grownup popcorn flick should be: frothy without sacrificing smarts, fast-paced without resorting to over-the-top action, and funny without a hint of the juvenile humor that dominates even what passes for sophisticated comedy today. This is Spielberg at the absolute height of his game, even if it’s a slightly different game that we’re used to (ditto for Hanks and DiCaprio). And what a delectable game it is.