Sunday, May 1, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XXVII: Who am I here?


As a piece of very minor Spielberg, Catch Me If You Can certainly has its charms—but it has so much fewer of them than you'd have every right in the world to expect.  And thus it avoids high-pitched fun, yet it disdains any really penetrating insight into what makes its weird protagonist tick, too.  So if it's not the worst of both worlds, it remains very far from the best.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Jeff Nathanson (based on the book by Frank Abagnale, Jr., and Stan Redding
With Leonardo DiCaprio (Frank Abagnale, Jr.), Christopher Walken (Frank Abagnale, Sr.), Nathalie Baye (Paula Abagnale), Amy Adams (Brenda Strong), Martin Sheen (Roger Strong), and Tom Hanks (Special Agent Carl Hanratty)

Spoiler alert: more-or-less N/A; moderate, if you want to be a stickler

Obviously, there is something here, about the eternal human quest for identity, undertaken amidst the specific milieu of America in the 1960s.  As for so many then and now, class and occupation came to mean everything for a young man named Frank Abagnale, Jr., who ran away from home as a teenager, and then embarked upon a decade-long campaign of fraud across the whole Western world, first taking on the guise of a pilot for Pan American World Airways, then a Harvard-educated doctor, and, finally, a prosecutor for a Louisiana parish.  So, yeah, there's definitely something here.  It's just not clear if anybody involved knew what, exactly, that thing was.

In any event, it was only through the dogged pursuit of Abagnale's hard-nosed, ultra-square nemesis, Agent Carl Hanratty of the FBI, that Frank was at last taken down.  And it is their rivalry—and their growing relationship—with which Steven Spielberg's film most clearly concerns itself.  But this is exactly what you'd expect it to do, since this is also the part that's 99% made-up, up to and including the part where there was ever an FBI agent named "Carl Hanratty."  (Although in a movie willing to frontload a mouthful of a name like "Abagnale," I guess it sounds plausible enough.)

The real Abagnale's feats of confidence trickery and technically-meticulous fraud are, as you know, legend (he is generally considered something like the greatest paperhanger who ever breathed).  Yet you can hardly blame a narrative film for changing the details when it comes to a man's life story, which—naturally—is not going to be as neat and tidy (nor, truthfully, as potentially interesting) as the possibilities a writer may find within that man's fictional counterpart.

And, in a Spielberg movie, you cannot claim surprise when the screenwriter's imagination winds up bending, one more time, toward the creation of yet another lonely young man who finds, in the most unexpected place, yet another lonely surrogate father.  Thus the best scenes in Catch Me If You Can all revolve around Spielberg's tried-and-true dynamic.  However, this being Spielberg in 2002, by now it was finally starting to dawn on him that people were not just starting to get wise to his need to hammer his characters into shapes more closely resembling his image of himself—they were starting to get a little sick of it, too.

Of course, it's not like Spielberg was about to just drop all the elements in Jeff Nathanson's screenplay that breathlessly pandered to his sensibility.  (A sensibility, incidentally, that was starting to evolve, if A.I. and this film are any indication, into one that had finally developed a newfound resentment toward mothers, as well as fathers.)  Still, he was more willing now to underplay those elements—presumably in an attempt to seem a little more mature even as he continued beating his favorite dead horse.

Unfortunately, maturity and Spielberg—or, at least, maturity and Spielberg's gloppy father-son narratives—go together roughly as well as oil goes with water.  The whole point of them is that they're juvenile; that's what makes 'em powerful, by striking at the most wounded, most childish parts of our souls.  Not so much here: and hence we get a good Leonardo DiCaprio performance, matched by one more great Tom Hanks performance, and we find their collisions increasingly infused with a mutual respect, and even what looks like a nascent paternal bond.  It plays very well when it plays: but it never gets to the big, huge, hyper-emotional fireworks that you always go into a Spielberg film hoping to see.

Or, at least, that I go to any Spielberg film hoping to see.

(But perhaps we do get those fireworks, in the film's most charged scene—and by far its finest—and then the thing just keeps going for another forty minutes.)

Well, it's of a piece, I suppose.  There are a hundred reviews of Catch Me that employ the adjective "breezy," and that's an apt description, considering that having watched it only three days ago, I find it already fading from my mind, exactly like the sensation of a gently-blowing wind.  All the joys that should inhere to its genre mostly wind up expended early on.  They drive a solid first hour that's at least as focused upon Abagnale's capers as it is his parents' collapsing marriage.  But the intrigue peaks almost immediately, with Abagnale's first face-to-face with Hanratty, where he confronts the FBI man with a bluff that proves Abagnale has ice water in his veins (and two big brass ones in his scrotum).  It feels like a template for all the great thriller sequences to follow—except, unfortunately, there aren't any more thriller sequences to follow, or at least not many.  There's one or two (brief) cool moments near the end, but you expect a lot more than that; and, frankly, you're bound to feel a little ripped-off.

No, after passing millions of dollars in checks under the guise of a PanAm pilot, and finding himself branded the "James Bond of the Skyways," Catch Me stops caring entirely about Abagnale's actual process.  Here, it becomes content to simply present images of DiCaprio playing dress-up, as if it's under the impression we might derive our amusement from simply wondering why anyone would buy that this kid was a doctor or a lawyer—an amusement that would probably come more easily if DiCaprio, boyish good looks notwithstanding, were not quite so plausibly his actual age (28).

And when we do at last arrive at the hospital alongside "Dr. Frank Conners," Nathanson's script soft-pedals the hell out what, in real life, was probably the most terrifying moment the boy ever experienced.  (Or maybe not: after all, there's a solid case that Frank Abagnale was and is a sociopath.)  In our world, Abagnale almost killed a baby with his near-comical lack of real medical skill.  In Spielberg's world, Abagnale is confronted with some mild grue, and chucks up his lunch in a janitorial closet sink.  It is the film's most extraordinarily lame turn of all.

"And I am so sorry that I crashed that plane full of disabled veterans."

Catch Me is one of the very few Spielberg films I wish had actually been directed by somebody else.  And it could've been, too; it was not a project he developed from the ground up, and prior to Spielberg's involvement, a whole host of potential directors had expressed their interest.  Most of them would not have been any better-suited to the project.  But there's one name on that list that marks Catch Me as one of the bitterest "might have beens" I can think of, and that name is David Fincher.  (And not least because of what Fincher wound up actually doing in 2002, the mediocre thriller Panic Room.)  When I think about a version of this film made with Fincher's operatic nihilism and cruel psychological insight—a Social Network before its time, punched up with Dragon Tattoo globetrotting and Zodiac's examination of a man who doesn't even realize his own obsession—it just makes me depressed.  Spielberg's Catch Me offers but brief, low-impact moments of the more frightening aspects of Abagnale, and all of them are adrift in this film's sea of occasionally-melancholy alrightness.  Of course, Fincher—hell, anybody but Spielberg—would surely have played Abagnale's romance with young nurse Brenda Strong better, first by expanding their time together, an absolute necessity, but also probably by either advising Amy Adams not to play her character quite so much as a one-dimensional daddy-issues-driven porno fantasy, or otherwise at least recognizing that she was, and doing something interesting with it.

But even for a Spielberg romance, Abagnale and Strong's relationship is hard to care about.  Naturally, then, the plot and the evolution of Abagnale's character largely turns precisely upon our ability to do just that.  Arguably, Abagnale himself doesn't care about this relationship, too—but God knows that's not ever made clear, either.  In the telling, it's just one more thing that happened.  (On the other hand, however, this is the Spielberg movie where we hear tell that a woman got an abortion—and it's okay!  How progressive?)

It's also the movie where Tom Hanks tells a knock-knock joke where the punchline is "go fuck yourself."  And, obviously, this is the absolute highlight of the film.

Consider further the scene that follows Abagnale's discovery of his appellation as the "James Bond of the Skyways," a sequence where we watch Abagnale watch Goldfinger.  (Representing an identification between the two men of mystery, somehow it's way too on-the-nose and eye-rollingly overreaching, all at the same time.)  Nonetheless, Abagnale, impressed with that old Bondian style, immediately uses his riches to fashion himself in the same mold, with a suit cut from the same cloth, and an Aston Martin to match.  Soon thereafter, we find ourselves in a real quagmire of a situation, as Abagnale semi-accidentally engages a prostitute.  (We also realize at this point, when she suggests a price of $1000, that Jeff Nathanson has no idea what inflation is.)  It becomes clear, in this entirely pointless scene, that this two and a half hour movie has an unjustifiable amount of flab on it.

Yet this scene is, perhaps, the key to understanding what Nathanson was going for—even if it's not at all clear it's also what Spielberg was going for—because when the scene concludes, we never see Abagnale in his Bondian attire ever again.  Naturally, by putting on those accoutrements, he winds up looking like just another millionaire—certainly ritzy enough to buy this woman's time.  But the money cannot buy him what he really wants, which is respect and validation—and a personality to truly call his own.  It becomes clear that what drives the fictional Abagnale to put on the identity of a pilot, a doctor, and lawyer isn't money anymore, if it ever has been.  It's the void that he can cover with each new uniform, but never fill.  Yet you have to work for this; you have to dig the meaning of this inauthentic man out of an unyielding script.  Catch Me barely shows or tells.  Only in the very end (by which point the film has started to drag a bit) do we reach a few moments of complete coherence—and these I appreciated a great deal, even though they attempt to impose an arc upon an incompletely-fictionalized character who strongly resists such a thing.

But yes, there are joys here, like those tete-a-tetes between DiCaprio and Hanks, which drive what vagueish emotional resonance the film manages.  (In much the same way that the scenes with Frank Abagnale, Sr.—however competently-played by Christopher Walken—don't.)  And, of course, there's that opening credits sequence, too, designed by Florence Deygas and Olivier Kuntzel in homage to the legendary Saul Bass (amongst others), and it's amazing.  Yet even this sours slightly once you realize, about two hours in, that their little cartoon writes a check for more fun than Catch Me ever intends to cash.  However, it does have the film's second best joke:

Ha!  Hey, at least they're aware of it.


As I just implied, Catch Me would probably be somewhat more fun if it simply weren't shot by Janusz "Check Out My Diabolically Hideous Interior Lighting Schemes And Also My Godawful Prismatic Flares" Kaminski.  Catch Me, a theoretically-fun period piece set mostly in the early 60s, is exactly what I meant when I said I wish that Spielberg had kept Dean Cundey's number.  You'd expect, given the Bassian opening, a film that genuinely attempts to throw us back into a recreation of the style of the era it depicts.  Unfortunately, it doesn't.  Instead, you get all the typical Spielinski visuals, now pitched at their dullest possible level, with colors that ought to reach out and slap you in the face, but instead find themselves not exactly muted, but certainly offering nothing that your eyeballs shall be likely to remember the next day.  (And I don't think I'll ever figure out how Spielberg decides which movies he makes in 'Scope, and which in ordinary widescreen.)  Meanwhile, without any serious psychological complexity in the screenplay or the direction, Kaminski's faintly unpleasant cinematography doesn't even make much sense.

So that's Catch Me If You Can, the Spielberg movie you kind of wish either wasn't a Spielberg movie, or (better yet) was much more of a (capital-S, capital-M) Spielberg Movie.  It's a film I have no active dislike for—but if I never saw it again, I can't say it would make me the least bit sad.  And that's kinda sad in itself.

Score:  6/10

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