“Life is stranger than fiction, because in fiction we have to stick to the possibilities,” famous British playwright George Bernard Shaw once said. Hardly did the Victorian playwright envision Hollywood when uttering that famous quote of his, yet the above stated aphorism is by and large the most accurate description of the 2002’s comedy-drama semi-biopic film, “Catch Me If You Can.”
Craftily directed by veteran Academy Award-winning filmmaker Steven Spielberg, and put together by an internationally and timelessly acclaimed cast, this big-screen adaptation of the biography of former con-artist Frank William Abagnale Jr. offers a little bit to everyone’s taste; indeed, viewing “Catch Me If You Can” will acquaint you with a real-life story, have you explore the boundaries beyond the realistic possibilities, provide you with room for profound contemplation and simply make you feel good.
Given that Spielberg is better known catching the eyes of critics and average moviegoers alike with films exploring complicated topics such as the Holocaust, racism, terrorism and science-fiction (“Schindler’s List” won him an Oscar; “E.T.: The Extra- Terrestrial” rocked the box office in 1982), he is pretty successful in drifting away from his comfort zone with “Catch Me If You Can.” Besides receiving an Oscar for John Williams’ Best Original Music score, this movie got thumbs up from the protagonist himself: The real-life check forger-turned-FBI consultant, Frank William Abagnale Jr.
The plot follows closely, via flashback, the turbulent, stranger-than-fiction life of Abagnale. Whereas the opening scene shows FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) visiting a French prison in order to get seemingly sick prisoner Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) and escort him back to the United States, the kernel of the stories are revealed by Frank himself while staying chained in a hotel room and nibbling on his éclair on the airplane.
Everything starts as innocently as possible: Emotionally fragile teenage Frank runs away from his suburban middle-class home in Yonkers, unable to cope with the unexpected divorce of his parents – the IRS-persecuted Frank Abagnale Sr. (Christopher Walken), and the self-possessed, French-born housewife Paula (Nathalie Baye). Even though he displays his propensity toward impersonating when posing as a substitute French teacher in his high school, he gives a full swing of his clandestine talent after being kicked out of a downtown hotel for a bounced check.
In addition to forging nearly $2.5 million in more than 26 countries, Abagnale Jr. successfully masquerades as a PanAm pilot, a Georgia doctor-in-residence and a Louisiana lawyer – all before his official coming-of-age at 21.
Weird. Unthinkable. Funny. Real.
Caught in between his “Titanic” heartthrob period and “Revolutionary Road” full-grown years, DiCaprio is the perfect match for the portrayal of the minor yet mature Abagnale Jr. Thanks to his natural charisma and witty manners, DiCaprio makes the actions of the protagonist quite believable: Cashing forged checks while charming naïve cashiers, getting laid by stewardesses as compensation for creating an in-flight confusion, escaping from the FBI under their noses in a hotel room and even scoring an engagement with a Southern belle nurse, Brenda Strong (Amy Adams).
With her big braces, freckles and inexperience with relationships, Adams is the live embodiment of the gullibility – the gullibility shown by the small-town middle-class girls constantly waiting for a change. She is the complete opposite of the witty, artful, worldly Frank. One could feel nothing but pity when the disheveled, sleep-deprived Brenda gets out of a taxi at Miami International Airport, desperately craving to meet her fiance, Frank, who is on his way to Europe. Adams’ acting is a precursor for the Academy Award nod for her role as soft-hearted Sister James in “Doubt” (2008).
Yet the tone changes from heartbreaking to hilarious when a bunch of agents, led by humorless, dim-witted Carl Hanratty, set their eyes on the gorgeous flight attendants passing by, thus missing once again their target, Abagnale, who is enjoying the company of the crew dressed in a flashy pilot uniform. With his not-so-attractive looks and clueless mien, Academy Award-winner Hanks (“Forrest Gump” 1994) is like a clone of the befuddled Bulgarian national Viktor Naborsky in the airport comedy “The Terminal.”
Whereas DiCaprio’s charm gets the viewers to condone the delinquent acts of his character, Baye’s pompousness and self-possessiveness help in making Paula Abagnale one of the least likable figures in the film. With her strong foreign accent and petty bourgeois manner, the Cesar-winning French actress (“Une Etrange Affaire”; “Le Petit Lieutenant”) seems highly promiscuous, as well as oblivious to her son’s emotional needs, thereby prompting his running away, in a sense.
Despite his dishonest nature, Frank Abagnale Sr. looks mostly like a victim of his own circumstances. The pastoral looks of Walken (“Annie Hall”; “Sleepy Hollow”) further induce sympathy for his character. He should only be blamed for setting bad examples for the likable DiCaprio’s Abagnale Jr.
Despite some discrepancy in terms of family status and plot development, “Catch Me If You Can” brings Frank William Abagnale Jr.’s memoir to life in the most realistic way possible. Yet this reality is stranger than fiction, which makes the Spielberg’s masterpiece a must-see movie.