Sunday, December 19, 2010

Steven Spielberg Blogothon: Catch Me If You Can

(This is my entry into The Steven Spielberg Blogothon hosted by Icebox Movies and Medfly Quarantine. One day in and there has already been some absolutely top notch stuff and it'd be well worth your while to go check it out.)

The dichotomy that makes Catch Me If You Can such a remarkable film is that it serves at once as one of Spielberg’s lightest most pleasing entertainments on the outside and one of his darkest films within.

Catch Me If You Can, asks the question simply but directly, “What Is Happiness?” It’s a question the movie to its credit refuses to answer. Or at least refuses to answer in the usual pat, mode of the Hollywood film. It’s not simply money that fails to fill the void in Frank. Status, sex, freedom and stability. All try and fail. Frank makes such a great con man, such a great adaptor, precisely because he’s so completely dissatisfied.

The film features Frank Abagnale trying on the different roles of respectable American society, The Doctor, The Lawyer, the professional, while simultaneously living the life of a con man, the outlaw. And yet DiCaprio casts all these roles away, one by one as unsuccessful and unfulfilling. In its own light and breezy way Catch Me If You Can is as an engrossing portrait of ennui and spiritual ache as anything Antonnioni ever made.

But even more impressive from this cinephile’s standpoint is the way that Catch Me If You Can, reconnects Spielberg with his working class roots. The thing that Spielberg never gets credit for, which is odd because I believe it’s the engine that fueled his genius for the first half of his career, is that he’s one of the greatest blue collar directors of all time. His early films are working class stories. The stories of ex cons, policemen, maintenance men, privates, single mothers, real estate agents, students and school teachers who had something amazing happen to them. That’s what the detractors still don’t understand about Spielberg, and what has made his films so seductive to “the masses” over the year. Spielberg’s early films take you aside and whisper in your ear that something amazing can happen to you. Yes you. Not to that guy up on the screen. Not just to the secret agents and the superheroes. But to you.

And he lost it somewhere along the way, I think Hook is the first time you can really notice it, with its townhouses and casual cross Atlantic flights, but it continues in Jurassic Park films and even to a certain extent in Schindler’s List (Early Spielberg would have made The Pianist). But it reaches it’s Nadir in AI in which in a world where we are told millions are starving and Spielberg choose to follow a rich couple whose biggest problems seem to be the scratches on their mahogany floors.

But Catch Me If You Can brings it back with a vengeance. The entire first act is just a slow motion car wreck. The implosion of the American family (the other great source of frisson in Spielberg’s work) in gory detail, with some of Christopher Walken’s finest work in years. By the time Frank runs you understand why and when he begins to shape himself at will into someone, anyone, else we understand why.

Of course I’m not giving credit to just how much fun this movie is. Aided by the top of the line production design, gorgeous cinematography, Amy Adams, Tom Hank’s wry performance and John William’s sprightly score, Spielberg brings the adrenaline rush, the joy of getting away with it with full force.

But it’s even harder to ignore the deep and persistent melancholy at the film’s core. Some of the greatest imagery in Spielberg’s career is in this movie. Frank staring forlornly through his mother’s window on Christmas Eve, meeting his Sister for the first time through a pane of glass. That single dollar bill wafting through the breeze.

And it’s that melancholy that has been at the core of Spielberg’s work, no matter how effervescent. True he is certainly the greatest escapist director of our time. Perhaps of all time. But every great escapist is acutely aware that there is something to escape from.


Adam Zanzie said...

Neat comparison there to Antonioni. I've heard Catch Me if You Can compared to Truffaut and Capra, but never to Antonioni. But the comparison is dead-on fo sure.

Not only is Catch Me if You Can fascinating as Spielberg's return to his "working-class roots" but it was also the first time since The Sugarland Express that he had taken the point of view of criminals. True, he more often makes movies about the bourgoisie, although often it's pretty tongue-in-cheek. Oskar Schindler, for example, wastes his entire business empire in order to become a broke humanitarian. Monica and Henry are privileged enough to abandon David out in the woods and then get on with their lives. Not very flattering portrayals of capitalism.

Whenenver I watch this movie--and it's been awhile--it always makes me cringe to see Frank's dad go from a common family man to a mailman. The fact that Frank Abagnale never did meet up with his father again in real life (after running away) is even more despairing.

Bryce Wilson said...

Well I certainly think that Spielberg has a point of view with his upper class characters. But it still comes down to making movies about the "they".

Since Catch the only other working class movie Spielberg's made was War Of The Worlds. And though that movie has many fine points, Tom Cruise convincingly playing a man of the people wasn't one of them.

As much as I like him, Spielberg is only in "Christmas Card Contact" with the man who created Roy Neery.

J.D. said...

"one of Spielberg’s lightest most pleasing entertainments on the outside and one of his darkest films within."

Well said! All the surface details suggest a bright romp of a caper film but look closer and there's a lot of sadness in this film, like how Frank Jr. is a lonely guy trying to connect with people, trying to be successful to impress his folks in the hopes that they'll get back together. But it's that scene between Frank and his father over dinner in a swanky restaurant where Frank Sr. tries to keep it together but gets all choked up and the emotion that Christopher Walken conveys is heartbreaking. That scene gets me everytime.

Adam Zanzie said...

Munich is sort of a working class film, too. I mean, even though Avner and his teammates are all handpicked by Golda Meir, one of the reasons why she picks them is because they're unknowns with average backgrounds. After Avner moves his family to New York, he has to crowd them into a little flat on a dangerous street. The fact that his enemies might be following him home also confirms that he's not privileged enough to secure his family's safety.

Bryce Wilson said...

JD: At JD. Thanks man, I loved your piece as well. To me it's that image of the dollar bill that really gets the lump in my throat going. It might be the most wistful thing that Spielberg shot.

@ Adam: True, but he still is in the know. On the side of authority. To use Close Encounters as an example again it'd be as if that film only followed Truffaut.

Kim said...

This was the first Spielberg movie I saw in the theatres since Empire of the Sun. I had pretty much given up on him and hadn't liked anything he touched since Last Crusade, but was pleasantly surprised by Catch Me If You Can, though it is overlong.

Bryce Wilson said...

Hmm... I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it overlong, as I really like its relaxed pacing. And I feel like that's part of what allows the emotional resonance to really sneak up on you.

tom hyland said...

It's Abagnale, not Abagnail.

Bryce Wilson said...

Thanks for the catch.

Darren said...

I think I enjoy the film more in hindsight than I do when I'm actually watching it.

I think you're on to something with your light exterior/dark interior comment. It's bubbly on the outside, but downright depressing on the inside - which is something I've always sense with Speilberg even before he started making excessively dark films in the past decade.

The centre of the Indiana Jones trilogy was a story about child slavery and human sacrifice, perhaps the first time it really bubbled to the surface, but let's not forget the way that Roy Neary essentially just abandons his family to go live with a bunch of aliens. I won't bore you the whole Spielberg/broken families spiel, but I think he tends to hide broken shards of glass underneath a sugar-coated outside.

Bryce Wilson said...

Couldn't have put it better myself. And it's the number one reason I can think of that I'm sure his films will last.