Catch "Catch Me if You Can" today, if you can.
Steven Spielberg's wonderful new movie is something rare: It's a warm thriller. Even rigorously hewing to the old cat-and-mouse game between a super-criminal and a dogged detective, it's got all of the Spielberg trademark twinkles to it. It celebrates family -- or, perhaps to be more exact, mourns its loss; it's vivid without being pushy; it's middle-class, middlebrow and middle-of-the-road without ever being simpering or simple-minded; it's brilliantly acted. But best of all, it's brilliantly made.
This guy really knows how to make a movie; he's studied the old-movie formulations and effortlessly duplicates them here. One, the best, is the way old directors used to build smaller story-arcs into the fabric of the larger one, weaving in small payoffs all the way through, a forgotten art in today's moviemaking. But Spielberg threads small narrative satisfactions all through "Catch Me if You Can." To cite just one, he gives us a fabulous little essay on schoolboy revenge: The hero, a devious impostor named Frank Abagnale Jr., shows up at a new school and a bully butts him in the hall. It's a typical high school scene relived a thousand times a day when a thousand new kids show up in a thousand high schools. But Frank turns the trick; he goes into the classroom, pretends with his eerie gravity and stunning sense of self-assurance to be the teacher, even bluffs a substitute teacher out. Then he turns the tables on the bully. The whole sequence can't run 30 seconds, yet it's a mini-movie in itself, a little nut bomb of sheer pleasure.
One wonders what it is in Spielberg that so loves Frank Abagnale, who swindled about $4 million in the '60s, while masquerading as an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer -- all before he was 19. Possibly it's that like so many mega-successful people, the director also feels like an impostor, and that his great career is some sort of mistake, and that somebody is going to knock on the mansion door one morning and say, "Oh, sorry, Spielberg, you were supposed to be an English teacher in suburban Phoenix, and we of the Corrections Bureau are here to escort you into the life you know you were destined for." Yet while Spielberg may romanticize this thief of identities, and never makes him seem mean-spirited or particularly evil, he doesn't quite endorse him either. It's a tale of crime and punishment, though a charming one.
The psychology of young Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) is pretty transparent, though it's not offered as an excuse, merely an explanation. Frank is first glimpsed at a civic association meeting, where his father is being given an award. Frank is happy, secure, a belonger. In fact, notice the look on DiCaprio's face during this sequence: The musculature is unformed, slack, the smile goofy. He looks so teenage it's remarkable; and later, as a man, his face will tighten up and acquire the focus that adulthood somehow magically confers. He has a handsome, successful father (Christopher Walken), a beautiful French mother (Nathalie Baye) and the respect of all New Rochelle, N.Y. He is 17 and about to learn the world can turn upside down.
It seems his father has tried to trick the IRS and as a consequence loses it all. Thus Frank and family move into a small, grubby apartment; thus he goes to that crude new school; thus, finally, divorce arrives, and Frank has to choose which parent.
He can't. He takes off instead. He then sets out on a mission to reunify his family, to reacquire upper-middle-class stability, to achieve respect. He even has a magic carpet. It's called a checkbook. There's no money in his account, but with a checkbook and a sense of gall, nothing can stop a boy genius.
Frank is essentially a world-class bad-paper artist. He's not really into flying, into healing, into the law; those are just dodges that get him into institutions whose financial security is poorly constructed (because, of course, it's never been tested by someone of Frank's ingenuity). I love the way Spielberg shows Frank's learning curve, absorbing the rules of the paper-money system and learning how to turn them to his advantage; all of this, of course, is driven forward by his utter sincerity in various guises, and his weird gift to make himself seem older or younger than he is.
Enter the fuzz. Enter Tom Hanks, who generously, and superbly, takes the supporting role of FBI agent Carl Hanratty, head of the Bureau's cracked (not crack; it's staffed with goof-ups) financial fraud unit. Hanratty is an earnest Boston grind, without wit or genius, but obsessed with getting his man. The best part is that a lesser director might have easily subverted social morality by turning the fed into a creepy psycho and the kid into an anti-establishment martyr. It's even the '60s!
But Spielberg is entirely too smart for such cream-puff stuff. He does something so subtle I fear it won't be recognizable: He makes a chase movie in which you root equally for chaser and chasee. Both are imperfect human beings in search of a perfection they can't have. Both are lonely.
Both are actually quite decent. Their attraction-repulsion isn't pathological, as are most chases, which come to resemble death hunts. This is an arrest-hunt. And Spielberg finds a symbol to express the FBI's essential harmlessness: It's the snub-nose Colt Detective Special all the feds keep pulling, and Spielberg keeps noticing in close-up silhouettes: a tiny little gun that seems to reflect the innocence of a world where nobody really shot anybody very often. It's a gun a man would carry who really did not want to hurt anybody.
The moves and countermoves are terrific, but the best scene in the film chronicles Frank and Carl's first meeting, which Frank in nanospeed improvises a new identity in an attempt to avoid capture. It displays Frank's talent in a way that contrapuntally fills the movie with melancholy: You think, this is so wasted. Someone with this much on the ball should end up a security consultant or a law enforcement consultant, and yet that's Frank dodging through identities and that's Carl on his tail.
Hanks is so brilliant you almost don't notice it's Tom Hanks under those el cheapo glasses and that porkpie. But the revelation is DiCaprio, who shows the range and ease and cleverness that Martin Scorsese so underutilized in "Gangs of New York." In this movie, little Leo is a gang of one, and he's a formidable presence in one of the most enjoyable films of the year.
Catch Me if You Can (125 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for cursing and criminal financial chicanery.