By Owen Gleiberman
Updated March 17, 2020 at 02:48 AM EDT
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Frank W. Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio), the wunderkind con artist of Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can, decks himself out in the dark, pressed suit and gold-brimmed cap of a U.S. commercial copilot, planning to cash a series of counterfeit airline checks. Yet the entire world gawks at him as if he really were a struttingly tall and handsome pilot, and Frank, without money, a job, or a high school diploma, is as happy as a kid in a Halloween costume. The moment he’s in that uniform, the girls swoon, the bank tellers fork over the bills, and even his ”fellow” pilots barely look up before inviting him to strap himself into the cockpit. It’s 1964, when air travel still had a swankily exotic air of future-world sexiness, and Frank has learned a valuable and ticklish lesson: You are what you look — and act — like.

”Catch Me if You Can” is based on the exploits of the real Frank W. Abagnale, who cashed some $2.5 million in fraudulent checks, eluding the clutches of the FBI by taking on a series of false identities. In addition to passing himself off as a flyboy, he pretended to be a doctor, a lawyer, and a college professor, and the fact that he did it all between the ages of 16 and 21 is as funny as it is remarkable. DiCaprio, though 27 when the film was shot, has just the right touch of baby-cheeked deadpan innocence to make you believe in the schemes of this eager boy grifter.

Why, exactly, does Frank turn into a roving charlatan? The movie, in a variation on a perennial Spielberg theme, presents him as a child of divorce who goes into free fall. Frank, though, is also a chip off the old block, inheriting — and refining — the self-destructive huckster spirit of his father (a scampish Christopher Walken). In a terrific scene, Frank grabs his bank-check machine and talks his way right out from under the nose of Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), a workaholic FBI agent who is wired so tight that he can’t see what’s standing smack-dab in front of him. It’s a relief, after Hanks’ funereal torpor in ”Road to Perdition,” to see him having this much fun playing a law enforcer this dweebishly obsessed (the actor sports one of the few note-perfect New England accents in movie history). The two characters spend the rest of the film locked in a cat-and-mouse game marked by a ritual Christmas Eve phone call.

Like all outlaw capers, ”Catch Me if You Can” celebrates the amoral pluck of its hero. The film’s most distinctive quality, however, is its ironically sweet tone of jet-age nostalgia. Spielberg catches you up in the blithe spirit of how easy it was, in an era when the technology of surveillance was in its infancy, for a smart operator to manipulate the power of suggestion. For all that, the movie starts to grow thin and a little repetitive. When Frank flirts his way into the arms of Brenda (Amy Adams), a candy striper in braces, convincing her to marry him, this interpersonal scam — or is it? — has no more weight than any of his others. The film’s charm ends up worn out by the very perfection of Frank’s con. We look at this teen wizard of rotating identity, and we realize we know everything about him except who he is.

Catch Me if You Can

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  • Jack O'Brien