There’s a slight problem with having the lead character of your story captured right at the beginning, only for you to flash back six years so you can really begin your journey with him. The problem lies in already knowing that he gets captured, and that it is only a matter of time until that happens. In this case, our lead is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, while the man chasing him is played by Tom Hanks. Catch Me If You Can is based on a true story.
DiCaprio is Frank Abagnale Jr., a young man who runs away from home and begins scamming people. He initially starts small, cashing fake checks up to $100, (although that was a decent sum of money in the 1960’s), and eventually weaves his way into different careers as a fake pilot, fake doctor and fake lawyer. This is a smart, charismatic character who you’ll eventually hate to remember that he gets captured. You want him to get away with all of this fraud, because his tactics are compelling to watch.
The man chasing him is FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Hanks). Always one, or even more, steps behind Frank, Hanratty is completely determined to right the wrongs that the man he’s set on a personal vendetta against has made. He meets Frank a couple of times throughout the flashback part of the film, and the conversations between the two are so interesting that Frank calls Carl up at one part just to remind us of that fact. No really, out of the blue, the two have a phone call conversation that, while having more purposes than one, eventually leads to you wanting to see the two geniuses go head-to-head more frequently than they had at that point, or ever will.
When you look at it from an outside perspective, the casting of DiCaprio in the lead may seem off. In real life, Abagnale Jr. began forging cheques at 16, despite looking like he could be 10 years older. DiCaprio was in his late-20s when this film was shooting, but looked like he was still in his teens. In the film, there are times when he claims that he is 27, (probably very close to how old he actually was), even thought his character is 17. We believe the latter part, that he’s 17, because he looks really young. I could not believe that he was supposed to be as old as his character claimed, which does make the casting seem a tad odd.
But does this matter all that much in the final result? Not by a long shot. DiCaprio plays his role incredibly well, bringing emotion to every scene and decision that he makes within the film. He’s charming and charismatic, and when he technically should be the villain — he’s robbing from banks and corporations here — framing him as the “good guy” means that these traits are mandatory for the film to work. Tom Hanks as the FBI agent chasing him works well, like you’d probably expect, and also gets some of the funniest scenes in the film.
That’s probably the most surprising part about Catch Me If You Can: It’s funny. It’s a film that never takes itself too seriously, and has a lot of light-hearted moments to ease any tension that builds while it runs. There are jokes — Carl Hanratty asks people twice if they want to hear a joke — and there are also moments where it almost acts like a parody. But it doesn’t quite get into that territory, and instead comes off as incredibly charming instead.
However, the film is not without its detractors. At approximately 140 minutes, it is a bit too long without enough key events to hold our attention. The aforementioned decision to show Abagnale Jr. captured right from the very beginning means that we already know, roughly, how the film is going to end. And Jennifer Garner appears in a cameo role — the scene she’s in is quite interesting, by the way, but I firmly believe that almost anyone could have played it just as well, and likely better than she did.
There’s a certain amount of brilliance in a film like Catch Me If You Can. The first bit comes from the lead character, who is way too smart for almost everyone around him. The second comes from his pursuer, who is every bit as smart, but also plays somewhat like a father figure to him. Abagnale Jr. left home early on, and didn’t have parents guiding his decisions. The moments where Frank and Carl meet are captivating not only because the two characters are both incredibly intelligent, but also because there is a level of emotional depth, and respect, between them.
Despite being slightly overlong, Catch Me If You Can is a compelling and captivating piece, where the few problems it has are easily overlooked because of how interesting it is. The lead characters are fun to watch due to their charisma, and the plot, despite jumping a couple of times from present to past, is easy to follow along with. The acting is good, the dialogue is sharp, and it never takes itself too seriously. It’s a film that works, and it works well for the majority of its runtime.