You can see how Steven Spielberg and company would have salivated at the prospect of bringing this story to the screen. Inspired by actual events in the life of Frank Abignale, Jr., it’s got a 16-year-old runaway conning his way around the world with forged checks and eluding the FBI for three years back in the 1960s. Add Tom Hanks, America’s everyman, as the dogged FBI agent tracking the kid and, as the kid, Leonardo DiCaprio, who looks about 15 and will until he’s about 80 at which point it will probably all catch up with him at once and he’ll wither up into so much dust not unlike Dracula after the sunlight catches him, and you’ve got a formula that just can’t miss.
The problem, and you just knew that there’d be one with that set up, is that the script by Jeff Nathanson can’t quite make up its mind what it wants to be. Is this a light-hearted romp? Is this a psychological drama? Is it a thriller? Can it be all three? Not quite, Sort of. Uh Uh. And dear lord no.
The actors, though, do their best. Hanks as the stupendously monikered Carl Hanratty, is given the tortuous duty of being the expository device of the flick. Through him, we learn just how checks are forged and how the F.B.I. tracks them down. And, yes, that’s just about as exciting as it sounds, though with Hanks getting the information out to the audience by delivering the lecture, literally, to his fellow agents, he manages to extract himself with a certain amount of dignity from the screenwriter’s laziness. He also has that basic decency about him even when playing the schlub of the piece, so that when the kid embarrasses him over and over again, you do feel a twinge of pity.
As the kid, DiCaprio has a nice blend of bravado and bemusement. Abignale is way out of his league, but he has somehow glommed onto the fact the bigger the lie, as in airline pilot, Harvard-trained doctor, Berkeley-trained lawyer, the more people see what they expect to see, and by being just a bit more clever than average, you can convince them that the world is flat and that the sun rises in the west. Yet DiCaprio, in a very smart move, never overplays the tentativeness.
But with the script changing tone every few minutes, coupled with a narrative that leaps at will all over the place, it’s hard to enjoy the thespianism. The dialogue doesn’t help. With thuds such as Hanratty’s exchange with another agent that runs “How do you know he’s not in New York? Because I’m here in Miami,” it’s hard to not sigh for something that rolls a bit more trippingly from the tongue.
There’s also a lot of sketchiness in the back story. For all the niceties of check forging that are shared, we never really see how Abignale got from running away from home when his parent’s divorced, to hitting the con game home run out of the park his first try. We do see his father trying to convince the Chase Manhattan Bank that he has a car and a driver when trying to get a loan from them. We see him give a nod and wink to his son when it’s discovered that Junior hasn’t been so much attending school as substitute teaching there. The moxie, I’ll grant, is inherent, but where did the finesse come from?
The best thing about the film is the relationship between Abignale and his IRS-harassed father, played by a poignantly jocular Christopher Walken. In scene after scene together, the affection father and son hold rings tender and true. None moreso than when Junior takes dad to lunch at a fancy restaurant and tries to give him a Cadillac that the older man can’t accept without getting into more trouble with the government. The bittersweet moment is flawlessly realized.
The more tangled relationship between Abignale and Hanratty falters when it should have soared. Nathanson seemed to be aiming for a mutual recognition of the stuffy agent and the high-living con man each having what the other lacks, and both feeling just a bit lonely. But clichés such as cutting from Hanratty watching his laundry do the spin cycle at a laundromat while Abignale negotiates a fee (paid with a forged check, of course) from a high-priced fille de joie are way too heavy-handed, even for Spielberg’s undeniable fluidity as a director.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN makes the case for remakes of films that didn’t quite work. I say, why wait 10 or 20 years? Get a new script, or maybe three, one for each of the genres attempted here, and give it another shot right now.