CATCH ME IF YOU CAN
April 8th, 2004
Reviewed by Darwin Mayflower
NOTE: The screenplays we review are often in development and may experience many rewrites, some could end up being completely different than what is reviewed here. It is our hope that our reviews generate more interest in the film. Thank you.
Now that Steven Spielberg is finished with his blockbuster-to-be, sci-fi extravaganza MINORITY REPORT -- where he teamed for the first time with megastar Tom Cruise (and directed an excellent script by Scott Frank) -- hes moved his sights to his next small-nations-economy-grossing film: CATCH ME IF YOU CAN. To star Leonardo DiCaprio and that other Tom: Mr. Hanks.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN is the fact-based story of Frank Abagnale Jr., arguably one of the most famous scam artists in American history. In addition to cashing more than eight million dollars in bad checks throughout our great world, Frank impersonated a Pan Am pilot (using the ruse to fly anywhere he wanted), served as Chief Resident at a Georgia hospital, practiced as a lawyer in Louisiana, and taught a college course -- all before he was eighteen. He was the youngest person ever to be put on the FBIs ten most wanted list.
Frank lived, to say the least, a very full life. What youve just read is presented on the third page of Jeff Nathansons adaptation of Abagnales book. Now he has to tell us the how, and, more importantly, the why.
On the surface, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN is exhilaratingly entertaining. Its fast-paced and fun. Youre in the copilots seat as Frank whisks us around the world and reveals how anyone with good looks and a keen eye can scam his way through life, to great prosperity, and not have to break a sweat. But it commits a sin that a biography should never: it doesnt let us glimpse into its subjects brain; it doesnt let us know who he is and how he ticks.
Frank grew up in Bronxville, N.Y., but the script skips to his time in New Jersey and shows us a sliver of his childhood life pre-crime. His mother and father met in a French village in World War II and Franks dad is the type of guy who tells the story of their love-at-first-sight meeting over and over again. His father, a stationary-store owner, instills in him a sense of divergent action and thinking. As written in the script, Frank Sr. comes off as an odd, paranoid man who probably needed mental help but never got it. The family soon falls on hard times when Frank Sr. cant get a loan from the bank. He owes the IRS money (he believes the government is "out to get him") and they must leave the affluent suburbs and move to a less glamorous part of Jersey. Frank Jr. must even enter a...public school! (I should just note, its always amusing to the people who started out in the bad hoods that for people who are entering from a more elevated place it is a nightmare.) Frank Jr. has a knack for acting a part. When walking into his first class, dressed in a blazer and tie, the students mistake him for their substitute teacher. He teaches the class for a week before being found out.
When his parents decide to divorce, Frank runs away from home. After witnessing the respect airplane pilots get, the artful high school dropout buys a uniform and revels in the admiration it affords -- and the ease it brings to cash bad checks.
Soon enough Franks crimes escalate to bigger and better things, including the improvement of his check fraud. (Frank would probably become the most proficient paperhanger the world has ever seen.) Frank also indulges in "deadheading" (which is when a pilot not on a crew hooks a ride to wherever theyre going) and travels around the world. Franks free rides become so notorious once people find out (later) that hes not a real pilot, the press picks up on it and calls him the "Skywayman."
Frank will eventually take up with a hospital worker, falls in love with her, goes back home with her and works as a lawyer with her fathers firm (that he knows nothing about the law doesnt matter, of course). All the while an FBI agent by the name of Joe Shaye is hot on his tail.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, no matter how factual or apocryphal, reveals an exciting drug-high of women, adventure and the no-consequences thinking of a young man. On that cheap entertainment level, CATCH soars. Franks scams are shrewd and its fun to watch him polish each cheat. However, you cant simply present a greatest hits package of Franks life. You have to let us know who he is. And in that regard CATCH fails miserably. Nathanson, our guide, seems too wrapped up in the giddy frenzy (as the young Frank was) to care. The facile explanation the script gives -- a totally inept like-father-like-son prologue -- isnt nearly enough. Its like theyre saying because Franks father avoided paying the IRS and tried to fake his way into a bank loan, the combined enormity of those things made Frank Jr. run out into the world of petty crime. The laughably obvious father-son business between Frank and John Shaye is howlingly transparent. Shaye has a daughter he never sees. He works all the time, spending his hours chasing guys like Frank. Frank has a father hes never with, an odd man who loves him but, apparently, never connected with him emotionally. Frank Jr. becomes Shayes surrogate son, and John becomes Franks surrogate dad. How touching. That just isnt enough, and its short-sighted in its simplicity. There has to be a bigger story. There has to be a way into Franks soul, so that the insight into him isnt a whatever-the-hell, psych 101, handbook-to-troubled-teens peg to hang his shenanigans on.
I have a big problem with the way Franks father was written and how hes dashed off as the root of all of Franks problems. Its like the my-father-spanked-me-so-I-kill defense. Even if Frank Sr. was the cause of Frank Jr.s felonious behavior, why did Nathanson write him as if the character was insane? Theres a bizarre scene in the script where Frank Sr. makes Frank Jr. turn on a jukebox just to piss off some tough guys in a bar. While the tough guys pour beer over Frank Sr.s head, he shouts, "Who are they, Frank? Who are they?" If Franks father really was mentally ill, then it should be noted; otherwise, this character is simply out of tune. Hell at one point lie to the Feds when they come looking for the lost Frank Jr., but at the same time when Frank Jr. appears out of nowhere, Frank Sr. blows him off despite not having seen him in a long time. It all feels like an add-on excuse for Frank Jr.s conduct.
Nathansons script has a scattered quality to it. Where is the connective tissue? It seemingly leaves out crucial details. Like: How is it that Frank is so damned smart? Was this completely intuitive? Frank is a high school dropout, only sixteen or seventeen years old, yet he easily inveigles his way into hospitals and airlines. He forges a Harvard diploma and passes the Bar exam. Did Frank take the time to self-educate himself? The script jumps from scam to scam like chapters in a how-to book.
By all accounts, the real Frank Abagnale lacked introspection in his book, so it might explain Nathansons lack of depth or knowledge. But given the fact that Nathanson had all this material before him, all the scams and grifts worked out beforehand, doesnt that make his job squarely to figure this guy out? Not just recite what he did and how cool it was? What this script lacks is even one sentence of Frank questioning himself. Did he ever once stop and think, "Hey, Im breaking the law. What Im doing is wrong"? Did he ever consider how he affected others?
From the real Abagnales empty boasting, I doubt he did. But then again, this Abaganle has been freshly sprayed with a candy coding. You dont make a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio as a thief without making him a "lovable antihero." Nathanson wants to sweep you up, spin you around, and show you what amazing things Frank did and say, more or less, "Dont you wish you could have lived this life?" The script doesnt pause long enough to accuse Frank of the danger he put people in. (Both physical and emotional.) For instance, the scene that opens Franks book, where he takes the controls of a fully-packed plane, is tossed off in the script as just another blithe adventure for our man Frank. But in reality hes risking the lives of everyone on board. And when hes the head Pediatric Doctor at a hospital? What if someone really needed care and he made the wrong call? Is that funny? Someone getting the incorrect drug because a green intern didnt know what he or she was doing and was looking toward the "experienced" doctor for advice?
And what of this woman he nearly married? She thought he was a doctor, a lawyer, an adult! Meanwhile, hes a stupid little kid playing dress-up. Her whole life, her trust in who people really are, explodes in that instant.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, basically, is as selfish as Franks book was. It cares about him and no one else; cares about his fun and not his consequences.
In the end Frank comes off as a pitiful person. (Its even more so in the book, since he vaingloriously, desperately, crows of his sexual conquests.) If anything, he just seems like one lucky bastard who, to borrow a term from that so-so film THE MEXICAN, "Forrest Gumps" his way through life and miraculously comes out on top every time. The full circle of his pitiful life is that, after these years of living the life of a playboy, hes reduced to being an FBI slop-boy -- he has to now expose the people who are living the life he once possessed. The little boy proves his age by doing the crime and not being able to do the time. For a shortened sentence he informs on all the tricks. Punks out in the face of trouble. (Hardly a "great" criminal.) Frank, even presented in this forum where they lionize and worship him, takes the appearance of a joke: everything he does is based on the TV shows and movies he watches. Again, just a fortuitous kid who got all the breaks. Not a "master" criminal or someone we should celebrate.
As written, Franks story doesnt reveal how amazingly intelligent he was; more so, it demonstrates that everyone else was a moron. His life is diminished to a near-comedy, as we stifle our laughs as another dope falls for his obvious schemes. Frank would eventually create some clever ways to do that mocked "crime" of check fraud, but it wasnt really like he did anything special. When he started to create actual Pan Am paychecks, it was only because a family member happened to be running a printing press. Frank, it seems, just happened to get interested in something at the right time -- when the people who created it were too dumb to see how easily breakable their system was.
One is tempted to say of Frank, like other crooks who show a flair for something, "What would he have invented or done had he gone down the legal road?" But you should stop and think about this, because the difference between a criminal and a real genius is that a criminal takes apart what other smart men have already done; a truly great mind invents to begin with.
Wheres the insight into the fact that Frank was clearly a "nothing man" -- a person who has to adopt a different personality to fit each new person hes with? When a person does this, they lose track of their real personality, and soon enough they no longer have one. Why doesnt Frank ever say to himself: Im not a doctor, Im not a lawyer, not a pilot -- who am I? Who am I really? Maybe he didnt know. This script certainly doesnt. Or maybe Frank couldnt face the truth of who he really was. That, outside of acting, he was pretty damned ordinary, unable to be any of the things he pretended.
Im not saying that Jeff Nathansons script is a total waste of time. I can see what hooked Spielberg, and why people have embraced the Abagnale myth. Its zestful and festive and wildly fanciful. And for Steven, theres even the lost-child subplot that he sticks in all of his movies. The fact that Frank is portrayed as a lucky screwhead with charm to burn rather than a natural genius leads to a few funny scenes, too. As when hes in his pilot uniform and another pilot asks what kind of equipment he flies. "General electric," he says. A bewildered and amused pilot asks: "What are you flying? A washing machine?"
When the script is funny, its hilarious. As when Frank interviews potential winners of his "Stewardess Training Course" (dont ask) with questions like, "What does aboard mean to you?" And when he shouts and struts in court according to the PERRY MASON episode he saw the night before.
Its all fine and good, but at the end of the day Im not interested in honoring a criminal (especially a remorseless one like Frank). To show his crimes without showing his motivation -- saying his actions speak for themselves -- seems like an empty endeavor. Its hard to like someone at the end of the day knowing that his lifes course coincided with the pain of others.
The chase by the FBI agent is there because, well, every criminal movie nowadays has to have a subplot about a cop or agent obsessed with catching him and forging a relationship. Its one of the most tired formats youll see. The truth is, the cutting back to Shaye becomes boring; all hes around for is to hear the tremendous waves Frank leaves in his wake. Since Tom Hanks takes up this role, expect it to expand greatly.
By writing a biography about someone you are saying they are worthy of one. And a man must be more than his actions. More interesting than the actions themselves is, of course, what drove him to them.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN will be a movie for people who dreamed of being James Bond or Harry Callahan. Its based in fact, but its a kids fantasy. Its not so much the examination of a thief (as in HEAT or THIEF) but the highlights of a swinging late-60s escapade with a guy who had no idea what the hell he was doing.
Maybe, just maybe, a big-budget movie that is, ultimately, about a teenager who passed bad checks isnt the greatest idea in the world.
-- Darwin Mayflower.