[Screen It]

(2002) (Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks) (PG-13)

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Drama/Comedy: An FBI agent tries to catch a wily and resourceful con artist who's traveling around the country forging checks and various identities for himself.
It's the mid-1960s and 16-year-old Frank Abagnale Jr. (LEONARDO DICAPRIO) seems to have the perfect life. Smart, good-looking and with a loving father, Frank (CHRISTOPHER WALKEN), and mother, Paula (NATHALIE BAYE), he even has a new checking account his dad opened for him.

Yet, things aren't exactly what they seem. Frank Sr. has problems with the I.R.S. as well as obtaining a loan, no matter what outrageous scheme he tries to use, some of which involve his son. When they're forced to sell the house and car, the marriage begins to crumble and the parents then inform their son of the inevitable - they're getting divorced.

Unable to take that news, Frank Jr. hits the road and tries to make it on his own, but similarly finds that he can't cash any of his checks at competing banks. Having already shown a penchant for assuming new identities like a chameleon changes its colors, the boy concocts an elaborate scheme where he ends up posing like an airline co-pilot so that he can cash forged airline checks.

That con also enables him to move about the country, always one step ahead of FBI agent Carl Hanratty (TOM HANKS) and his associates who work in the bank fraud division and are after the forger. Occasionally writing home or briefly visiting his father and still hoping and trying to get his parents back together, Frank begins living the high life, seeing various women such as Cheryl Ann (JENNIFER GARNER) and then Brenda Strong (AMY ADAMS), a hospital worker that gives him the thought that being a doctor might be a good career change.

That eventually leads to him meeting Brenda's parents, including father Roger Strong (MARTIN SHEEN), whose lawyerly profession obviously inspires the young man into another line of work. With the years passing and the amount of his forged checks nearing $4 million, Frank tries to stay ahead of Carl and his team as they move ever closer to catching him.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
Don't you just hate overachievers? Okay, maybe hate is too strong of a word - perhaps envy is better. By the time I was 19, I had played some sports, graduated from high school and was a freshman in college, and held a few minimum-wage jobs.

By the time Frank Abagnale Jr. reached the same age, he had impersonated a Pan Am pilot and flown over 2 million miles for free; served as the chief resident pediatrician at an Atlanta hospital and then as the Assistant Attorney General for the state of Louisiana; and made nearly $4 million.

Of course, he did so forging checks and was constantly on the run from the FBI, but those are just some "minor" sticking points to success. They're also what serve as various plot points for Steven Spielberg's deliciously delightful "Catch Me If You Can." Based on the real-life exploits of Frank Abagnale Jr. during the mid-1960s, the film is a throwback to the adventurous, caper-style pictures of yesteryear.

In fact, for those who complain that they don't make 'em like they used to, this is proof-positive that they actually still can. With composer John Williams' ("Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," "Minority Report") terrific and thankfully not overbearing score, various perfectly chosen and placed period songs, and terrific work from production designer Jeannine Oppewall ("Pleasantville," "L.A. Confidential"), costumer Mary Zophres ("The Man Who Wasn't There," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski ("Minority Report," "Saving Private Ryan"), the film looks and feels as if it were lifted straight from the '60s when Henry Mancini and the Pink Panther were the rage.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to have Leonardo DiCaprio ("Gangs of New York," "The Beach") playing the boyish rogue and Tom Hanks ("Road to Perdition," "Cast Away") as the FBI agent pursuing him. There's also none other than Mr. Spielberg ("Minority Report," "Jaws") behind the camera.

For the first time in a long time, the director has decided to "tackle" a lightweight subject, and a caper at that. While the film has some serous moments and issues, the overall light theme and aura obviously suit Spielberg quite well and the lack of strain in taking a break from crafting a serious or complicated work obviously shows.

In fact, the film reminded me quite a bit of Steven Soderbergh's remake of "Ocean's Eleven." Both feature terrific casts, an engaging story and characters, and the appearance that they had as much fun making the film as we experience in watching it.

Jumping through time from the point of Hanks' character having already caught Abagnale and returning him to America to sequential flashbacks of watching the con artist progress from impersonating a substitute teacher through the pilot and other phases, the film is a fun and funny cat and mouse flick.

It's also one of those films where one equally likes and roots for both the "hero" and "villain," even when the latter doesn't really come off that way. Viewers are thoroughly likely to enjoy both of their efforts to do what they do best and might just root for Abagnale to get away at least one more time so that the fun "game" doesn't end.

Such a real-life con artist obviously has to possess a charming, engaging and pleasing personality to get away with what he does, while the person playing him has to do the same to make him believable. Thankfully, for both the film and the viewer, DiCaprio nails the part and embodies one of the more entertaining cinematic creations to hit the screen in some time.

Beyond somehow still managing to look young enough to pull off the 16-year-old bit, the actor infuses the character with such youthful and winning exuberance and misbehavior (rather than criminal malfeasance) that you can't help but like or keep your eyes off him

Hanks, as usual, is terrific and equally as much fun to watch. Mixing his serious and light comedy personas - along with a Bostonian accent - he creates the most engaging "pursuer" character since Tommy Lee Jones in "The Fugitive."

Supporting performances from the likes of Nathalie Baye ("Absolument fabuleux," "Tomorrow's Another Day"), Amy Adams ("Serving Sara," "Pumpkin") and Martin Sheen ("O," TV's "The West Wing") are all solid, and Brian Howe ("The Majestic," "State and Main") and Frank John Hughes ("Bad Boys," HBO's "Band of Brothers") serve as some comic relief in the form of Hanks' FBI partners who'd rather be on a different beat than bank fraud.

It's Christopher Walken ("The Country Bears," "Sleepy Hollow"), however, who excels as the rogue's father who obviously inspired his son's "creative" tendencies. Perfectly balancing the sad but still rascally elements of the character, Walken is superb and could very well earn some best supporting actor nominations.

Fun, lively and meticulously crafted from start to finish, this is a lightweight but tremendously entertaining and engaging film that viewers are likely to wish could be longer than it already is. One of the year's best and a guaranteed good time, "Catch Me If You Can" rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed December 16, 2002 / Posted December 25, 2002

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