Today, August 19th, is National Aviation Day in the United States, so I thought for our movie date we'd have an airy confection, about flight in both the aviation and criminal sense:
Catch Catch Me If You Can if you can. It's a lovely movie and all the more surprising considering the Hollywood muscle powering it: Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio. These people have all made such terrible choices in recent years that you forget what it's like to see them in anything other than earnest pompous plonkers. Even John Williams dispenses with the big orchestral bombast and turns in his breeziest score in decades. It's almost groovy. Plus Christopher Walken gets to dance - not for long, alas - to "Embraceable You", with Nathalie Baye.
The pretext for this confection is the true story of one Frank Abagnale Jr, and I can't sum it up any better than the trailer: He practiced medicine without attending medical school, he practiced law without a law degree, and he was accepted as a pilot without attending flight school. And he did all this before he was 19. Frank Jr (DiCaprio) is the son of Frank Sr (Walken) and his French wife (Miss Baye). It's the early Sixties, they have a nice house in New Rochelle, in the New York suburbs, and Frank Sr is a respectable Rotarian. Unfortunately, due to a little creative accounting, he has the Internal Revenue Service on his ass, and so he loses the house, and then his wife, and his teenage son takes off with nothing but a check book to an empty account. In short order, he discovers how easy it is to cash other fellows' checks rather than your own. He gets a pilot's uniform, drops a toy plane in the bath tub, peels off the PanAm decal, sticks it on a fake check, walks into a bank, and - presto! - 300 bucks. A little check-kiting here, a little more there, and pretty soon you're driving fancy sports cars and scoring all the chicks you can handle. Not bad for a sad adolescent with no friends.
Spielberg being Spielberg, certain familiar themes are present: the troubled, lonely child of divorce, etc; also the intersection of life and art, or at any rate TV. I haven't read Mr Abagnale's autobiography but, as presented here, he learns how to be a doctor from watching Dr Kildare and how to be a lawyer from watching Perry Mason. You can see why the character appealed to Spielberg, whose point of reference to any subject is usually other people's movies on the theme. In Catch Me, he seems to be aiming for the glossy charm of a Stanley Donen caper, and the wonder is he pulls it off, right from his period-cool animated titles sequence. He taps into the jet-set sheen of the age with great precision: those Sixties air terminals with the flying-saucer shapes, Sinatra singing "Come Fly With Me", the trolley-dollies from the Coffee, Tea Or Me? era before unions and feminism combined to fill American jets with grumpy hatched-faced cabin crews in shiny stretch pants and flat shoes. And in the middle of it young Frank Abagnale, winging it - and all alone, until eventually he confides in his nurse girlfriend. She's played by Amy Adams in what wasn't quite the breakout role Spielberg expected it to be, but I mention it because I chanced to be seated next to Miss Adams on the plane a couple of days after I last saw this film.
Leo's awfully good in this picture. He's playing ten years younger than his age, which is a perfect fit for his child-man mien and saucer-cheeked deadpan. This movie exploits all his talents, all his natural ease just as surely as Gangs Of New York wasted them. Clever and playful, Frank stumbles on something he's good at and takes off. Watch the way he blooms, from the intense adolescent in the blazer to the jaunty jet-setter in the bespoke tailoring, modeled on Sean Connery's suit in Goldfinger. The era's essential to the charm. Today, a con-man caper is all about technology - accessing the database, faking the retinal scans. Very cold, very mechanical. No room for Cary Grant. But the mid-Sixties, the day before yesterday, is the Stone Age security-wise. No scanners, no computers: all you have to do is talk your way in.
That's the beauty of the film, watching Frank improvise his way through, from the first day at his new high school to his first audacious showdown with the FBI in the pork-pie-hatted person of Agent Hanratty (Tom Hanks). Hanratty's character is the opposite of Frank: dogged, methodical, relentless, square. He's a plodder even when he's running, and the New England accent seems to slow him down even more. But, coming straight from the funereal Road To Perdition, Hanks brings a surprisingly light touch to a character who is, after all, a dull bureaucrat from the check-fraud department.
Jeff Nathanson's script deserves a nod for all the little unobtrusive connections it makes: look for the reprise of "Embraceable You", as Frank's prospective in-laws are at the sink washing dishes; it's a few seconds, packed with everything the kid's lost and everything he hopes to get back, and it's completely unforced. Given the leaden self-importance of A.I. and Minority Report, you'd be forgiven for wondering if this director could pull off a film involving girls in bikinis lounging by the pool as Astrud Gilberto sings "The Girl From Ipanema". But Spielberg has revived a lost genre: the warm thriller, a film about a genial manipulator that manages to be genial but not too obviously manipulative itself. Instead, it's pleasingly loose around the edges. Runs out of puff a little in the final act, but why hold that against it? This movie's relaxed, which is not a word you can use about any other Spielberg film.
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