by Marty Demarest

As the man responsible for a good number of the top-grossing films of all time, Steven Spielberg doesn't have to try very hard. He merely needs to come up with an idea, mention it to a few people and suddenly he has resources at his disposal that would sustain an entire nation. It's refreshing, then, to see that even with budgets that would make a Republican blush, he manages to fail regularly (see A.I. and Amistad for some bloated-yet-humdrum filmmaking). It's even more interesting, however, when he succeeds.

That's not to say that Catch Me If You Can is of the same caliber as E.T. or even The Color Purple -- because it's not -- but rather that it's good filmmaking, and undeniably Spielbergian. Gone are Minority Report's cookie-cutter scenes that made Spielberg seem like some talented film school graduate on a spending spree. Instead, we get something that Spielberg does better than any other director in Hollywood: a fractured, 20th-century middle-class American family.

In telling the story of thief and thrill-seeker Frank Abagnale Jr., Spielberg gets two things he knows how to work with. The first is a broken home -- Frank's parents, including a great turn by Christopher Walken, split early in the film. The second is an eager young hero -- played gracefully by Leonardo DiCaprio -- who retreats from this reality into his own realm of fantasy. For Abagnale, this means posing as people he's not, and taking money that isn't his. Mirroring the giddy exploits of DiCaprio's Abagnale is the stalwart determination of Tom Hank's FBI agent Carl Hanratty, who eventually tracks Abagnale down. The parallel structure of two obsessed individuals, one dynamic and the other determined, gives Spielberg plenty of directing room without leading him into the realm of spectacle.

The bad news is that Spielberg still hasn't figured out how to end his films. There are several points when the film would have been better served by just stopping. The only other flaw with Catch Me If You Can is Spielberg's reticence to personally contribute to his DVD releases. Even boring filmmakers sound interesting when talking about their work, and yet Spielberg refuses to grace us with any commentary tracks. There are a few mini-documentaries, but Catch Me If You Can is a pretty skimpy release unless you count the expensive-looking, entertaining film.

Publication date: 05/15/03

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