Steven Spielberg has made no secret that his parents' divorce was the central, painful event of his growing up. And he keeps revisiting that experience in his films. In E.T., lonely Elliott Taylor, growing up in a single-parent home, searches desperately for a father figure, finally finding a most unlikely one in an extraterrestrial. In Empire of the Sun, Jim Graham is separated from his parents when the Japanese attack Shanghai at the beginning of World War II. Fundamentally an orphan, Jim tries to construct a family out of the other detainees in a P.O.W. camp. His father figure is a ruthless con man named Basie who nonetheless teaches Jim the tricks of survival. I don't know who Spielberg would point to as his own father figure. Hitchcock, perhaps, or Truffaut. But we see the same twisty search at work in Spielberg's current Catch Me If You Can: a young man from a broken home soldiers through a mess of trouble and finds a mentor in the most unlikely place.
Adapted from an autobiographical book and scripted by Jeff Nathanson, Catch Me If You Can is the story of Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), an audacious impostor. Frank's parents (Christopher Walken and Natalie Baye) divorce when he is 16 in the early 1960s, and rather than seek refuge in drugs or rock 'n' roll, Frank turns to flamboyant feats of felony. Like Elliott who manages to hide an extraterrestrial in his closet and Jim who becomes an adroit black marketeer, Frank is a quick study with a gift for making things up as fast as he can talk. Like Jim in particular, Frank shares a fascination with airplanes and flying. Because he's decided that his parents broke up due to his father's financial woes, Frank determines to amass a fortune as quickly as possible. And what better way to do that than to become an airline pilot for globe-circling Pan Am Airways. Being barely old enough to shave can always be camouflaged in a sharp captain's uniform, for then, as perhaps even now, clothes do make the man.
We aren't sure that Frank ever actually takes the controls of a 707, but he convinces plenty of people that he's a flyboy. Even more important, he cashes hundreds of thousands and ultimately millions of dollars worth of phony Pan Am payroll checks. Needless to say, this eventually comes to Pan Am's consternated attention and an FBI investigation is launched by Special Agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). With the heat on, Frank subsequently passes himself off as Harvard-educated physician and lands a job running the emergency room in a large Atlanta hospital. Later still, Frank convinces people that he's a Berkeley-educated attorney and secures work as a deputy New Orleans prosecutor. All before he turns 20 years of age. It isn't clear how well Frank performs in these positions. But he's a genius at talking himself into sweet situations and out of tough spots. And, man, does he become a world-class authority on forgery in its sundry manifestations and applications.
Catch Me if You Can recalls the films from the era in which it is set, the stylish intrigue of Stanley Donen's Charade and especially the anti-authoritarian spirit of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Bonnie and Clyde. Frank may be personally responsible for the spiraling costs of air travel, but he's got more balls than a hundred-foot Christmas tree, and we don't ever stop rooting for him.
We might legitimately wish for more emotional heft and thematic weight in Catch Me If You Can, and in that way it fails to rival the enduring importance of either E.T. or Empire of the Sun. The film is far more about the fun of the ruse than it is about Frank's desire to restore his father's affluence so he can woo back Frank's mother. And the passage that concerns Frank's romance with candy striper Brenda Strong (Amy Adams) proves disconcerting in more ways than one. What's with Brenda's relationship with her father (Martin Sheen), for instance? We get a peekaboo hint of incest without a single frame of follow up. More important, what are Frank's true feelings for Brenda? Is she just another mark, a sexual conquest like the model (Jennifer Garner) he cons earlier, and one with an influential father to manipulate as well? Or does Frank really care for Brenda? If so, how is he so seemingly unaffected by the way their relationship plays out?
In short, Spielberg didn't bring his A-level concerns to this sunny movie. The picture endeavors little more than to observe that people find their mentors in the oddest places; for Frank Abagnale, in the law officer determined to arrest him. But prospective viewers should remember that, like Pete Sampras' second serve, Steven Spielberg's B-level exertions are better than most directors' best efforts. Catch Me If You Can is like Miller Lite: It's less filling, but it tastes great.