"Nothing fake about it"

Dir. Steven Spielberg; writ. Frank Abagnale Jr. (book), Jeff Nathanson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Amy Adams, Martin Sheen; feat. (PG-13)

This is the year to learn to love Steven Spielberg again. Hurry up — there are only a few days left.

DiCaprio (allowed here to turn on the charm again after the bloodthirsty Gangs of New York) plays a teenager who gets by in the adult world better than most adults do. Using nothing more than a sharp mind, a mighty educator called television, and some top-notch printing equipment, his Frank Abagnale manages to pass millions of dollars worth of fake checks and pass himself off as a doctor, a lawyer, an airline pilot, and — least impressive, perhaps, but most entertaining — a substitute high-school teacher. He is pursued by Tom Hanks, a G-man whose nasal twang makes him seem like a Kennedy cousin who ran afoul of the clan and was forced to work for a living.

The studio advertising folks, who know what side their bread is buttered on, have taken advantage of the film's setting to make it look like a Swinging '60s romp, a pastel pastiche full of winking humor and playful sex appeal. It is that, to a certain extent, and it is awfully entertaining, but Catch Me is a lot less lighthearted than it looks. Throughout the film, we flash forward to 1969, when Frank is captured and left to rot, lice-infected and covered with sores, in a French jail. The six years before that happens, though, may be worth the punishment.

In between the vicarious kicks, Spielberg makes a few deliberate choices to downplay his story's breeziness. He and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (responsible for the striking look of Minority Report and A.I.) seem to be shooting the action through gauze — focus is soft, lighting diffuse, and every living room has just enough dust in the air to catch the sun's incoming rays — and the style can have a slightly lugubrious effect. That's appropriate if you take seriously the story's subtext, which suggests that Frank is largely motivated by a desire to impress his old man (Christopher Walken, in as subtle a performance as he is capable of giving) and get him back together with his mom. But Frank is obviously addicted to free money, and his filial gestures don't ring true.

Speaking of Spielberg's collaborators, it would be a shame not to mention the delightful animated opening credits by Thierry Kuntzel. It is rare that this much attention is paid to titles sequences, and this one is especially appropriate. John Williams, too, contributes a nice, relaxed jazz score — even if he stoops to his oft-noted practice of "borrowing" from other composers, this time from Paul Desmond's "Take Five."

Catch Me If You Can is something of a double-edged sword in this Year of Spielberg: By restraining himself out of deference to his material, the director has made one of his most coherent, most perfect pictures; by restraining himself just after two sci-fi spectaculars, he may have ensured that this film will underwhelm those expecting him to keep topping himself. Anyone falling into the latter trap will miss the fact that Spielberg may finally be becoming the filmmaker he should be by now.

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