Sunday, December 11, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.16: Steven Spielberg's Catch Me if You Can

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with December dedicated to his “mature” films. Next, 2002’s Catch Me if You Can.

Grade: 79 (B+)

Spielberg’s A.I. and Minority Report showed a new, exploratory nature to the director, and they served as the first two parts to his unofficial “Running Man” trilogy, in which protagonists look for answers whilst running from the law. The trilogy concluded in 2002 with Catch Me if You Can, the lightest in the series. Based on the true story of Frank Abagnale, Jr., the film is both a frothy, enjoyable comedy and an exploration of the break-up of the family. It also doubles as a re-telling of Spielberg’s own story.

Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a lucky kid. At 16 years old, he’s got it made. His parents Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) and Paula (Nathalie Baye) are happily married, and he’s such a clever kid that he goes to a new school and impersonates a substitute French teacher for a whole week before he’s found out. Things go sour as his father’s business fails, and when his mother cheats on his father, Frank is forced to choose who he wants to live with after the divorce. Unable to make a decision, Frank runs away, and he uses his savvy to impersonate, alternatively, a pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer. He becomes a master at forging checks and identities, and eventually he steals millions of dollars from the U.S. government. His only problem: relentless, humorless FBI-agent Carl Handratty (Tom Hanks), who can’t let Frank get away with this.

Spielberg brings in two primary influences to Catch Me if You Can: Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock. Capra, like Spielberg, often showed good, honest men dealing with situations far bigger than them, trying to make things right with their family or some other system. Here, Frank is trying his hardest against an unfair system (the government that bankrupted his father) and tries to get his family back together. However illicit his deeds are, his intentions are (mostly) noble. Hitchcock, meanwhile, comes into play in a lighter way than usual. Catch Me if You Can is Spielberg’s version of one of Hitchcock’s more lighthearted films, most notably (check out the title!) To Catch a Thief. The film even opens with an animated title sequence reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Saul Bass-designed openings from North by Northwest.

Catch Me if You Can is perfectly cast all around, from Hanks as an uptight FBI man to Walken as Frank’s down-on-his-luck father, but the film wouldn’t work without DiCaprio. DiCaprio’s post-Titanic career had been slightly disappointing, and the actor hadn’t found an entirely suitable role to follow up his charismatic, star-making role in the James Cameron film. Not one week before the film’s release marked DiCaprio’s first collaboration with Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York. Scorsese might have found the great actor in DiCaprio with The Aviator and The Departed, but his uneasiness playing an Irish punk in Gangs leads to a soft, weak-willed protagonist. Catch Me if You Can more than makes up for his earlier miscasting, calling on him to be vulnerable, charming, intelligent, and daring. It’s still one of his finest performances.

Why this diversion to the actor in a Director’s Spotlight? DiCaprio, like Abagnale, had to deal with intense pressure and fame at a young age. So did Spielberg. Catch Me if You Can is a variation on Spielberg’s life story of a wunderkind who conquered the system. Frank learns the game early from his father: how to deal with people, how to charm them to get what he wants. He soon surpasses his father’s success in every way, but ina dirty business. He impersonates a pilot, essentially finding a way to “fly” (Spielberg’s obsession with flight has been evident for ages). He manages to fool anyone and everyone around that he can do anything. He fools Handratty into thinking he’s a Secret Service Agent by playing it so cool. As he gets rich, he finds that others don’t have the same respect for good taste he has. He often learns how to act by watching movies (Goldfinger shows up just to remind us where Spielberg really came from). Spielberg himself was a brilliant young director who bucked the system and became one of the most powerful men in showbusiness.

With that irreverence towards authority comes Spielberg’s usual untrustworthy authorities. Frank learns not to trust the banks after they ruin his father, and he gets back at them by stealing millions of dollars. When a divorce attorney talks down to Frank, he doesn’t take it well. Most notably, there is Carl Handratty, the bumbling, humorless, occasionally absent-minded FBI agent hunting Frank. That he’s only doing his job, and that he’s ultimately a good guy, doesn’t change the film’s initial framing of him.

At the heart of it, Frank is still a kid. When asked what if he wants a “drink”, he requests milk. He has sex with a girl, and tells her “it’s the best date I’ve ever been on”. He meets a prostitute (Jennifer Garner) and doesn’t realize her profession until long after she’s come onto him (there’s a story in Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls about Spielberg’s naïveté and sexual inexperience compared to his early girlfriends). When he tells Handratty he’s a Secret Service agent, he gives the name “Barry Allen” (aka The Flash). When he has to see an injured leg while he impersonates a doctor, he can barely stand the sight of the blood. When he buys his father a new car, he doesn’t understand that the I.R.S. will go after his father for it.

But every childhood must end. Frank is another Spielbergian “lost boy” wandering in a fallen world. In this case, everything comes crashing down with the Abagnales’ divorce (the first divorce actually shown in a Spielberg film). It’s hard enough for Frank to see his father’s businesses fail (he, like many sons, overlooks his father’s flaws), but the catastrophic power of divorce in a child’s life is overwhelming. Frank Sr. tries to make things work for his family, but when Paula falls for another man (James Brolin), it’s the end of the marriage. Frank can’t take his parents fighting over him, and he believes that, through hard work and love, he can reunite his parents. He even tries to get another family back together: when Frank meets a pretty nurse named Brenda (Amy Adams in a memorable early role), he proposes to her after he learns that her father (Martin Sheen) won’t see her after an abortion a few years ago. Frank comes into her life, and for a while, it looks like he can fix everything.

He can’t. Frank’s lifestyle catches up with him, and he’s separated from Brenda forever when he’s forced to flee without her. His final scene with his father is desperate. Frank Sr. is terrified for his son. He knows he’s in trouble, and that he’ll get caught if he ever stops running and tricking people. Spielberg’s sympathy for parents (not to mention his parenthood by the time he made the film) helps communicate the absolute fear that something might happen to someone’s son. His experience as a child of divorce, meanwhile, informes Frank’s story. Frank learns that his mother remarried, and that she won’t see his father. The dream is over, the fairy tale has ended. He can’t get it all back. This scene didn’t happen in real life (the real Abagnale describes it as “the scene I wish I had”), but it’s a final moment between a father and son before the heartbreaking truth after Frank is finally caught: that his father died after he slipped on some steps, and Frank didn’t get to say goodbye.

Frank finds another father, of sorts, in Carl Handratty. Carl is a career-minded FBI man whose dedication to his work ended his marriage and guarantees that he hardly ever sees his daughter. Frank’s dealings with Carl become that of a son rebuking his father, and Frank calls Carl every Christmas. They develop an odd companionship and understanding of each other that culminates with Frank joining Carl’s side. Frank’s experiences with check forging make him an expert at spotting fakes, and that gift brings him to a new family: the FBI, with Carl as a father figure (there’s something about Spielberg becoming part of the system here).

 Here’s where the film slips a bit: the introduction of the subplot isn’t bad, but the film drags on another twenty minutes to show Frank’s restlessness with everyday life and his developing friendship with Carl. They’re not terrible scenes, but the film’s breezy momentum finally halts; it would have been wiser to end with Carl approaching Frank in prison with the job opportunity rather than drag the film past the 140-minute mark. It’s another example of Spielberg’s more pronounced difficulty with ending his stories in his later years (A.I. notwithstanding).

Catch Me if You Can is not Spielberg’s most impressive film of the past decade, but it is one of his most entertaining, as well as one of his most autobiographical. The film might not be as well remembered in future years as A.I. or Minority Report or Munich, but it’s a far lighter and simpler film that goes down easily and gracefully. It shows a director willing to experiment with different, less propulsive rhythms and just cruise along amiably. And in the end, who doesn’t want to see some kid buck the system, if only for a little while?

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