Jack of all trades, con artist bar none

Whatever you think of Steven Spielberg, he's certainly a busy man.

Last summer, he released "Minority Report," the year's most ambitious science-fiction epic. And he's back already with "Catch Me If You Can," a very different kind of movie, although marked with as many patented Spielberg touches.

Leonardo DiCaprio - also busy, with "Gangs of New York" opening at almost the same time - plays real-life con artist Frank Abagnale Jr., who passed himself off as a doctor, a lawyer, and a pilot during the 1960s.

Along the way, he also passed millions of dollars in bad checks. This made him especially interesting to the FBI, which assigned an agent (Tom Hanks) to track him down. Spielberg chronicles their cat-and-mouse game, making Abagnale the main figure and federal Carl Hanratty the bloodhound who comes to like his quarry even as the chase comes close to driving him crazy.

Spielberg loves epic-sized projects. "Catch" tells a story smaller in scope than recent films like "A.I.- Artificial Intelligence," but it has the trimmings of a large-scale saga, with a 140-minute running time and a wide array of settings.

At times, it also has the look of a Spielberg fantasy, despite its fact-based plot and down-to-earth performances. Rooms and objects shimmer with a mysterious glow, carrying the subliminal message that there's no limit to what amazing things might happen.

DiCaprio's limber face was made to order for a character who masquerades as a seasoned professional while still a high-school dropout, and Hanks sets aside his usual affability to make the workaholic cop ruefully believable. Best of all is Christopher Walken as Frank's dad, who stays loyal to his son while his own life falls apart at the seams.

What limits the movie is Spielberg's lack of skill with psychological suspense. Time and again he punctuates the story with sequences that have you on the edge of your seat - until you realize the outcome is ridiculously easy to guess. He doesn't probe very deeply into the minds of his characters, either, fascinating as such an inner journey would surely be.

The movie is engaging and well acted, though, and the "Pink Panther"-style credits and background music are worth the price of admission.

Catch it if you can.

Rated PG-13; contains sex and adult themes.

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