"CATCH ME If You Can" is a movie that steadfastly refuses to be spectacular. At first, that seems to be its drawback. In the end, that's its disarming sweetness.
This non-fiery quality is the first thing you notice because, well, the thing's directed by Steven Spielberg. Isn't that supposed to amount to something? Shouldn't this film be more powerful? A mind-blower from the man who made "Schindler's List" and "Minority Report"? Shouldn't it be more obvious He made it?
As soon as you get over Spielberg's light touch, you can enjoy a pleasant, mildly diverting story based on the life of Frank Abagnale Jr., a con artist to remember. The real Abagnale, a teenager at the onset of his swindling career, conned his way into the most exclusive of places. He cashed more than $2 million in fraudulent checks. Under assumed names, he passed himself off as a doctor, a lawyer, a professor and, in the boldest of schemes, as an airline pilot. He was in his early twenties when it all came crashing down. A remarkable feat for a kid barely able to shave.
"Catch Me If You Can" (not the most inspired title in the world) follows this story as a lighthearted yarn, a fairy tale in which you find yourself rooting for someone who makes a point of deceiving people.
We meet Frank in his earlier teen years, watching helplessly as his goodhearted, financially luckless father (Christopher Walken) starts to lose money and, almost inevitably, his exotic French wife (Nathalie Baye). To the young Frank, this is the abyss -- the consequences of what could happen if you don't keep ahead of the bill collectors.
He embarks on a life of cheating, not for the psychological joy of deceiving people, but for survival. And he's good at it.
"You always said an honest man has nothing to fear," he writes in one of many letters to his father as he starts out. "So I'm trying my best not to be afraid."
Frank "becomes" a pilot simply because he wears the uniform. He cashes checks at banks because -- with low-tech ingeniousness -- he takes the decal from a plastic Pan Am toy plane, and gums it to his blank check.
Success breeds success. Little by little he turns into a master, a sort of James Bond of con (a theme with which the movie plays). And he comes, pretty soon, to the attention of FBI Special Agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), who spends most of his time determined to find the elusive Abagnale.
What makes Frank so appealing, apart from DiCaprio's charms, is the less-than-appealing person chasing him. Hanratty spends his life at the office, unreasonably fixated on getting the kid. If the nerdy, obsessive Hanratty's the good guy, what's wrong with breaking the law?
Aha, you realize. Spielberg is making "Peter Pan" all over again, an innocent boy forever confounding Hanratty's Captain Hook. As soon as trouble starts, he puckishly flits above it all. This all takes place in an age of innocence -- the 1960s, when you could con your way into a Pan Am jet just because you were wearing the uniform. As Frank's father (the usual terrific Walken) says: the New York Yankees always win because everyone is stunned by their pinstripes. Frank wins the day because he forces his victims -- and Hanratty -- to become mesmerized by the stripes. In one memorable scene, Hanratty literally has Frank cornered when the teenager turns the tables with a sublime act of deception. He escapes the FBI agent in plain sight. And that's the Peter Pan secret too.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (PG-13, 140 minutes) -- Contains sexual material, some violence and some obscenity. Area theaters.