Spielberg’s Underage Con Man: Good, Clean Hollywood Fun

Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can , from a screenplay by Jeff Nathanson, based on the book by Frank M. Abagnale with Stan Redding, turns out to be that rarity of rarities, a mainstream American feel-good movie with both charm and intelligence. If it hadn’t been shot in 140 locations in and around Los Angeles, New York, Montreal and Quebec City, we might surmise that much-maligned Hollywood was making a comeback.

After a long absence from the screen, if not the scandal sheets, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a real-life con artist who in the 60’s led the F.B.I. and police forces in several countries on a merry chase while cashing millions of dollars in bogus checks and impersonating a high-school teacher, an airline pilot, a pediatrician and an assistant district attorney-all before he was 21 years old.

Mr. DiCaprio’s Frank is pursued relentlessly by Tom Hanks’ also-real-life F.B.I. check-fraud specialist, Carl Hanratty. But theirs is hardly an implacable Jean Valjean–Inspector Javert relationship.

Increasingly, as the chase and pace quicken, Hanratty develops an almost paternal interest in Frank, who has been emotionally devastated by his parents’ divorce-his father, Frank Abagnale Sr. (Christopher Walken), has split from his unfaithful French wife, Paula (Nathalie Baye), after Frank Sr.’s business is driven into bankruptcy by unpaid taxes.

This back story, along with his being spectacularly underaged and undereducated for the scope and audacity of his frauds and deceptions, makes Frank an unusually sympathetic white-collar criminal. Not that Hanratty lacks a somewhat sentimental back story of his own: With his divorced wife and his little girl both living far away, the good-humored Hanratty joins a long line of movie lawmen whose demanding and dangerous occupations place their marriages at high risk.

The parallel dysfunctions of Frank and Hanratty would make Catch Me If You Can seem more formulaic than it is were it not for the movie’s smoothly edited backward-and-forward chronological movement in ever-shifting locales. The movie also has a nice feel for pop tunes that are decades older than the plot’s supposed 1960’s time-frame, and that niceness extends to Mr. DiCaprio’s tender amiability with fragile Brenda Strong (played by Amy Adams), whom Frank courts through the braces on her teeth. Mr. DiCaprio’s faux-naïve Frank is even passive enough to allow Jennifer Garner’s high-priced Cheryl Ann to swindle herself with his fraudulently certified checks. But everything potentially unpleasant and misogynous is done once over lightly to remove the sting for the audience. In these expressionistically dark times for movies, Mr. Spielberg and his collaborators have fashioned a light, virtually painless entertainment by not digging too deep into anyone’s tortured psyche, despite showing us Mr. DiCaprio’s occasionally tearful breakdowns, which are kept mercifully brief. You’d think I didn’t like the movie from the way I’m writing about it, but I’m simply responding to a measured professionalism in big-star showcasing that reminds me of the kind of simple, uncomplicated pleasures that were once routine in one’s moviegoing, but are now too often buried under tons and tons of production values and special effects.

Mr. Spielberg and Walter F. Parkes, the film’s producers, have been quoted as saying that the 60’s was an ideal era for a con man like Abagnale to function. As the production notes would have it, both Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Parkes attribute at least some of Abagnale’s success to the innocence of the times: “I think it was the naïveté of those days that allowed Frank to get away with what he did for so long.”

Mr. Spielberg adds, “It was a time of tremendous trust, when you never locked your doors, but felt safe.” Innocent? Safe? The 1960’s? I seem to recall that America “lost its innocence” in that decade with the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., not to mention the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention over the Vietnam War. It’s getting to be a pattern. First we’re told, in Far from Heaven , that the 50’s were dull and innocent; now Mr. Spielberg adds the 60’s to the list. I wonder what people will say in the future about the 90’s, when so many people floated around in the dot-com bubble.

The point is that America has never been all that innocent to begin with, and one is more ignorant than innocent to believe otherwise. Not that I would prefer an angst-ridden film of the “real” 60’s from Mr. Spielberg and his collaborators to the Christmas chocolate samples he has bestowed on us. In this instance, ignorance is bliss-particularly when two such talented and charismatic authority figures as Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen get into the escapist spirit of the project, as Frank’s zestfully pathetic loser of a father and Frank’s comically gullible father-in-law-to-be, respectively.

Ultimately, I enjoyed finding it all hard to believe, and then being told it was all true, at least sort of. Nathalie Baye is wasted as a shallow slut of a wife and mother, but American filmmakers have never been able to handle the worldly-wise great French actresses.

Polanski’s Pianist: The Consolations of Art

Roman Polanski’s The Pianist , from a screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on the book by Wladyslaw Szpilman, was the well-deserved winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, though there were some observers who questioned the comparative conventionality of this surviving-the-Holocaust story for a director of Mr. Polanski’s stature, who excels at projecting brilliant ironies and eccentricities, most notably in Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and, best of all, Chinatown (1974), still the greatest film noir about Los Angeles. Had Mr. Polanski, now nearing 70 and living in a judicially imposed exile in Paris, softened to the point of losing his creative edge? One would be tempted to think so, after a half-dozen clunkers abroad. But The Pianist , in my opinion, is not one of them. Certainly, with a mother who died in Auschwitz and a father who was confined in another concentration camp, no one is more qualified than Mr. Polanski to deal with a film about the Holocaust.

I must report that during the screening of the movie, I felt an excruciating sensation of helplessness and hopelessness, as if the Holocaust were still about to happen, and the poor wretches on the screen could not begin to anticipate the totality of the event. By focusing on the pre-Holocaust inability to anticipate the monstrous dimensions of the catastrophe, the script even throws in a ruefully cynical sick joke in a scene in which a patriarchal Warsaw Jew wonders aloud why the supposedly all-powerful Jewish-American bankers (at least according to Dr. Goebbels) don’t force Roosevelt to bring America into the war against Nazi Germany.

The film is based on another reportedly “true” story, this one of a concert pianist named Szpilman (Adrien Brody) who almost miraculously escaped the Nazi-controlled Warsaw Ghetto, and a train to Auschwitz, with the help of the Polish resistance and the crucial intervention of a music-loving German officer, who eventually died, in a bitter irony, in a Soviet prison camp despite the pianist’s futile efforts to find him. Meanwhile, the pianist’s entire family and all his friends perished in the death camps. If this is the evidence for the charge that an allegedly “sentimental” Polanski is sifting through the ashes of the Holocaust, the case for an adverse critical verdict is exceedingly weak.

What makes The Pianist authentically Polanskian is the absurdist detachment of the artist who keeps practicing his art even when the world is crumbling around him. And there is little doubt that Mr. Polanski completely identifies with Szpilman, who keeps employing his skills wherever and whenever a piano is available. On one occasion, he is hiding in a room that is supposedly unoccupied, and hence subject to suspicions from the neighbors if any sounds are heard emanating from it. Finding a piano in the room, and realizing that he cannot strike the keys, he keeps in practice by lightly touching the surfaces of the appropriate keys while the soundtrack roars with the music in his mind.

The Pianist is thus really two movies, the first about a community in perpetual denial about what we all now know, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, to have been “inevitable.” Yet, even with the increasing frequency of random executions on one capricious pretext or another, it was difficult for the temporarily surviving eventual victims to believe that a diabolical plan was at work to dispose of them all. One factor contributing to the feeling of impending horror is the comparative unfamiliarity of much of the cast. Looking at unfamiliar faces without any cross-textual resonance or iconic charisma, it is harder to be distracted from the terrifying awareness that these virtually anonymous human beings are soon to take their places among the millions of even more anonymous numbers branded on arms. Even the occasional awkwardness of the spoken English dialogue prevents the comforting distancing of an audience from the spectacle in a Polish-language or French-language version with English subtitles.

Mr. Brody’s performance as the pianist runs the gamut from professional narcissism and self-absorption to the physical torments of hunger, thirst and exhaustion from endless running and hiding, to the life-force that drives the yearning for survival. History has provided Mr. Polanski with the Samuel Beckett–like absurdist moonscape made desolate by the advances and retreats of murderous rival armies. Mr. Polanski is in his element here: alone, abandoned, but still consoled by his art, which is more than he has ever revealed before about the source of his spiritual survival.

Stylish Debut

Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s Intacto , from a screenplay by Andrés M. Koppel and Mr. Fresnadillo, marks the feature-film debut of its director and co-writer. Much of this moody, highly stylized thriller is about an odd form of gambling, in which a seemingly suicidal against-the-odds version of Russian Roulette provides the final test for Tomás (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a young thief and only survivor of a plane crash that kills the entire family of Sara (Mónica López), a policewoman. Federico (Eusebio Poncela) is a grifter who has learned to rob people of their luck by touching their wrists. The deus ex machina is provided by Samuel (Max von Sydow), still another Holocaust survivor with mystical luck. The movie is ingenious fun. See it.

Revivals to Catch

Film Forum 2 (209 West Houston Street, 212-727-8110) is launching its Winter 2002-2003 Repertory Preview of Caviar Christmas, New Year and Beyond-a program of fully restored revival-movie classics-with Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto (1961), a post-neorealist serio-comedy about a naïve, ever-hopeful late adolescent applying for a “job for life” at a big corporation in booming 1960’s Milan. The boy finds romance, in his tentative way, with a girl as decent and innocent as he, but his ultimate fate is foreshadowed by the life and death of a middle-aged co-worker, a pathetically aspiring writer caught in the gears of an uncaring society. Il Posto will run from Dec. 20 through Dec. 26.

Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), which follows from Dec. 27 to Jan. 2, not only deserved its Oscars for Best Picture and Best Screenplay for Mr. Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, but also merited the Best Actor and Best Actress awards for its two co-stars, Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Indeed, Ms. MacLaine’s losing the award to Elizabeth Taylor’s shallow big-star posturing in Butterfield 8 is probably the biggest mistake the Academy voters ever made. And yes, I would now rank The Apartment above even Alfred Hitchcock’s masterly Psycho , also released in 1960.