Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio both know a little something about conquering the world at a young age, which may explain why Catch Me If You Can paints such a sympathetic and resonant portrait of its wunderkind protagonist, a wily real-life con-man who passed millions of dollars worth of worthless checks and successfully impersonated a doctor, FBI agent, and airline pilot, all before turning 21. Loosely based on the self-aggrandizing autobiography of Frank Abagnale Jr., Catch Me If You Can stars DiCaprio–as effectively cast here as he was miscast in Gangs Of New York–as its debonair antihero, the quick-witted, licentious son of prominent New York businessman Christopher Walken. Bored by school and eager for new challenges after his beloved father's traumatic divorce, DiCaprio embarks on a series of increasingly complicated and lucrative criminal endeavors. Tom Hanks co-stars as DiCaprio's friendly antagonist and father figure, a straitlaced, dry-witted federal agent who can't help but feel sympathy for DiCaprio's baby-faced grifter. Spielberg does a terrific job handling the film's glossy surfaces and trickier emotional undercurrents, but part of his skill as a filmmaker comes in choosing the right collaborators. Janusz Kaminski's gorgeous cinematography, Michael Kahn's graceful editing, Jeff Nathanson's clever script, and John Williams' score all work well in unison, but the film's masterstroke is the casting of Walken as DiCaprio's utterly decent father; the move does much to undercut the film's sentimental streak. DiCaprio excels in a role that makes smart use of both his leading-man charisma and his character-actor versatility, while Hanks is terrific as Javert to DiCaprio's Jean Valjean. Given Spielberg's filmography, it's not surprising that he and Nathanson have tamed the runaway libido at the center of Abagnale's salty story and replaced it with an almost purely noble desire to avenge his family's swift tumble down the economic ladder. Disproving the conventional wisdom that film adaptations never live up to their literary sources, Spielberg's movie marks a distinct improvement over Abagnale's engaging but smug book, in large part because DiCaprio is as charming as Abagnale once thought he was, and nowhere near as smarmy.
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