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.