Devastated by his parents' divorce, 16 year-old Frank runs away from home and embarks on an audacious career as a conman. Travelling across the globe, Frank tries his hand by turns as an airline pilot, doctor and lawyer, all the while pursued by dogged FBI agent Carl Hanratty.
Frank Abagnale Jr., the real-life subject of Steven Spielberg's latest feature, never dreamed that he would be the subject of a movie. "How do you condense five eventful years into two hours?" he has asked. And, bearing in mind that this practical concern comes from the man who saw no great difficulty in scamming $2.5 million in forged cheques before he'd even reached his 21st birthday, it's an interesting worry. Actually, although Spielberg allows himself a further 20 minutes' grace in the running time, the result suffers from an unlikely dichotomy of feeling both overlong (a slight sag around its midriff) and detail-light (having sacrificed many of the book's more intriguing nuances).
Were this not inspired by real events, but rather a fictional screenplay, Spielberg would surely have drawn a red line through certain chapters for sheer momentum's sake. As it is, slightly hamstrung by factual accuracy, we occasionally find ourselves meandering through scenes that serve little purpose. Also, certain chronological jumps (Hanratty finds Frank in France) arrive somewhat out of the blue, as if a couple of scenes of explanatory preamble have been left on the cutting room floor.
Then again, contrary to expectation, this is not the frothy, superficial caper we'd been led to believe. Forget that trailer; what we have here is a deeply moving, quite wonderfully acted coming-of-age black comedy, packed with equal measures of pathos and plain fun. In focusing on the lovely Leo accompanied by a girdle (collective noun) of trolley-dollies, early teasers have rather missed the point: this is as sophisticated as modern moviemaking gets, Spielberg's most deft handling of comedy to date, and a shot of pure class straight into the heart of cinema. Thought OceanÆs 11 was cool and sexy? Trust us, this is too.
While in different hands Abagnale's adventures would have lingered far more on the hedonistic aspects of what, let's face it, must have been one damn fine foray into manhood (picture for just a second an Oliver Stone version of the stewardess sequence), for Spielberg the focus is elsewhere. In fact, his obsession with the themes of fatherhood has arguably never been more heartbreakingly realised than in Catch Me If You Can's telling incidentals: Frank watching Mr. and Mrs. Strong do the washing up, Franks Jr. and Sr.'s lunch meeting: these are powerful touches that will stay with you long after the end credits roll.
Considerably darker than anticipated - abortion and infidelity simmer under a deceptively glossy sheen - the film requires the highest calibre of acting talent, and in his casting Spielberg delivers an unprecedented ensemble. For DiCaprio fans, this is the best reason to go to the cinema since he went down on the Titanic - he is back at his blistering, finest-of-his-generation standard. Hanks devotees, meanwhile, will rejoice at yet another subtly distinct variation on the Everyman; and obsessives of TV series Alias will be positively cock-a-hoop at Jennifer Garner's erotically supercharged cameo. As for Walken, well, if you make it through his performance without shedding a tear, then there's a fiver here with your name on it.
More slow-burning than you'd expect, and all the more breathtaking for it. A fitting dessert to Spielberg's preceeding entree and main course of A.I. and Minority Report, and one hell of a ride.