Catch Me If You Can

dir. Steven Spielberg

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Steven Spielberg has long been called the "Poet of Suburbia," a moniker (à la Hitchcock's "Master of Suspense") that fits him like the snuggest of sweaters. Nearly every Spielberg film carries a whiff of the bullshit dream of cul-de-sac living--which is to say, safe and comfortable and harmless.

This doesn't mean his films have lacked excitement (see Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark), or creativity (see Close Encounters, Minority Report), but that Spielberg the auteur has rarely chosen to challenge his audience. Sometimes this lack of challenge, this fear of alienating viewers, does little harm to his work; other times it leads to disaster (examples: the final act of A.I., or the embarrassing Arlington National Cemetery bookends in Saving Private Ryan).

Catch Me If You Can, the Poet of Suburbia's latest opus, is the safest of ventures--so much so that even Spielberg himself appears to be bored. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, it is not so much a film as a mint, a guaranteed blockbuster. Based on the spectacular memoir of the same name, it tells the true story of Frank Abagnale, Jr., a 17-year-old runaway who, through impersonating an airline pilot, then a lawyer, then a doctor--and forging $2 million worth in Pan Am payroll checks along the way--landed himself, before the age of 20, on the F.B.I.'s Most Wanted list.

Such a yarn, which is essentially a chase--beginning in New York and ending in France--is ripe for the screen, especially given the story's setting: the early '60s, when air travel (and America itself) was at its swankiest.

So why then, given the talent involved, does Catch Me If You Can so thoroughly deflate as it unspools before your eyes? The answer, methinks, is Spielberg's sheer, obvious boredom. Long stretches of Catch Me If You Can are filmed so lazily, so devoid of energy, that the entire enterprise falters, producing more of a shrug than general excitement. Add to that a script that stumbles between over-sentimentality and near-cartoonishness, and the end result is a thrilling, near-unbelievable story rendered dull and even more unbelievable.

Another director residing on a perch not so lofty as Spielberg could have turned Catch Me If You Can into something rare: a smart, well-made blockbuster. Unfortunately, the Poet of Suburbia appears to have cashed his check, then caught a nap.