Cops And Robbers

The true story of one of the greatest scam artists of this century.

"Why do the Yankees always win?" asks Frank W. Abagnale Sr. (Christopher Walken). Taken aback by his father’s rather unexpected question, Frank Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) surmises probably because they have Mickey Mantle. His father corrects him, "It's because the other team can't take their eyes off the pinstripes". Unwittingly Frank Sr. teaches his son a valuable lesson, that to succeed in life you need to dress the part. With the right kind of threads, pulling the wool over people’s eyes is child’s play.

And this is exactly what Fank Jr. proves true. "Catch Me If You Can" is based on the true-life story of one of the greatest scam artists of the twentieth century, who successfully impersonated an airline pilot, a lawyer, and a doctor and amassed over four million dollars in check fraud - all before his twenty-first birthday.

Frank Jr’s exploits start when his idealised suburban life crumbles, culminating in his parents’ divorce. Unable to choose between his father and idol, Frank Abagnale Sr., a smooth-talking, romantic businessman wanted for IRS tax fraud, and his beautiful French mother (Nathalie Baye), Frank Jr. runs away from home and embarks upon his picaresque adventures. His outrageous shenanigans (which include peeling off Pan Am stickers from model aeroplanes and sticking them on forged checks) attract the attention of the plodding FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), who pursues his quarry half way across the world. A staid, almost humourless person, Hanratty is the perfect foil for the flamboyant Frank Jr.

After his futuristic crime thriller "Minority Report", director Spielberg does a volte-face and sets the action of his latest film in the Swinging Sixties. The cleverly animated opening credits, in which a G-man pursues a chameleonic impersonator sets the mood for the cat and mouse game. Unlike recent con artist films, which rely on high tech gizmos to outwit the law, "Catch Me If You Can" has a refreshing appeal as it focuses on its protagonist’s immense charisma and ability to dupe people effortlessly. You just can’t help admiring Frank Jr.’s chutzpah, whether it’s his self-assured role-play as a substitute teacher or the hilarious scene where he slips right through the fingers of the Feds, hot on his trail.

However, the movie isn’t without flaws. There are loopholes in the plot, which require a willing suspension of disbelief, but more than that, Spielberg mars the joie de vivre of the crime spree by lingering on the emotional drama behind Abagnale’s sociopathy. Even the battle of wits between Hanratty and Frank Jr. is diluted by moments of sentimentality. The movie truly shines when the audience is allowed to vicariously revel in Frank’s audacious ingenuity. Hanks and Walken give a convincing performance but the screen belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio. There’s something comical yet poignant about the way in which Frank watches TV dramas and picks up dialogues for his different personas, using the very same lines in his real life. At heart, he remains a naïve kid playing dress up, who shows a vulnerability that belies his conniving mind.

This article was first published on 05 Feb 2003.