Hollywood's a town that thrives on old adages and cautionary truisms. You know, you're only as good as your last movie, nobody knows anything, never work with children, animals or dead people. Well, two can play at that game. Here's one for the audiences, then: never trust a trailer, the central cog to any movie's vending blitz. The witch doctors shaking their maracas in the teaser editing room chant the same old marketing voodoo: compact the feel, big up the best bits but, above all and at all costs, seduce the ticket buyers.
Dunce logic this, but more often than not trailers prove to be an exercise in expectation exploitation. Here, then, is yet another example of a trailer not doing what it says on the tin. Backed up by Spielberg's eager yaks about a fleet-footed, 55-day shoot, the trailer for Catch Me If You Can promises a pacey, jump-cut-spasmed caper, a rootsy, zappy kickback to the French New Wave. Kind of Truffaut does The Fugitive. Fittingly, for a movie about scams, the campaign turns out to be a crisp confidence trick. See the film and the wrapping falls off: proficient, fun and lively it might be, but it's a shadow of its own vibe.
After staying in the shade with a string of episodic, thundercloud tragedies (your Saving Private Ryans, your AIs), you can understand why Spielberg was drawn to such a toothy confection. Inspired by the real-life scrapes of conman Frank Abagnale, Jr (Leonardo DiCaprio), Jeff Nathanson's script is an exultant account of how a barely pubescent opportunist became the youngest man ever to crack the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. And no wonder the screenplay's so wide-eyed: Abagnale's scams are so fantastic you're left in an incredulous state of giddying respect. Abagnale legged it from a broken home at the age of 16, embarking on a superhuman blagging spree. By the time he was 21, an act of self-preservation had escalated into a farcical mega-con that saw him impersonate a pilot, doctor and lawyer. All while dodging the FBI's clutches... It's the stuff of American myth.
Unsurprisingly, Spielberg has a fine time glorifying a freeloading legend who rolled the dice with corporate America and won. When Abagnale's performing one of his cons, Spielberg douses the movie with a roguish joie de vivre not seen since his first feature, The Sugarland Express (clearly Catch Me If You Can's closest relative). Employing a chocolate-box '60s period feel (doubled by whimsical, beach-weather-bright visuals), the scam sequences are vibey, enchanting and emphatically nostalgic.
So far, so good - but this is ultimately so-so. Unlike its whiplash trailer, Catch Me If You Can doesn't shift it half as fast as it thinks it does. Of course it's Spielberg's gig, but had this been in the hands of a Scorsese or a Soderbergh - both filmmakers blessed with a natural sense of tempo - Abagnale's tale would be a breathless one. Here, however, Spielberg turns benevolent Darth Vader and asks you to `Feel The Schmaltz'. Much sugar is sprinkled over the bond between Frank and his idealistic dad (Christopher Walken) but it totally spanners the pacing. There's no point playing puppet master when you can see the strings and, aided by John Williams' otherwise ace Mancini-inspired score, which descends into a familiar snivel, it's misplaced, misplaced and manipulative. What's especially frustrating is that Spielberg feels the need to over-egg the emotions when his star clearly has all the bases covered.
DiCaprio doubters really do get their gobstoppers here. After being buried by the oppressive pomp of Gangs Of New York, DiCaprio's blended a blooming star quality with method tics to create a character ready to root for. Initially bursting with immature charm, DiCaprio's character arc is so vigorous, so complete, that the comedy and pathos flow naturally. He's sensational, the reason to see the movie, and credit is due to Spielberg for tickling such an exceptional turn out of him.
And Tom Hanks? He's Hanks. As the agent humiliated into the rodent role in a game of cat and mouse, it's almost as if he's thrown his persona into a bucketful of crabs, sat back and reacted to the odd pinch. Half the movie he's Forrest Grump. The other half he's FBI Everyman. Feel free to call it presence, but it sure ain't acting.
A buzzy story with a bubbly lead, Catch Me If You Can's a blast but essentially we're talking soufflé: not terribly filling, nice while it lasts, too many crumbs.
In one eye and out the other, there's something inconsequential about Spielberg's caper. It's flirtatious, frothy and funny but an uneven pace and sappy subtext softens the ride.