“Two little mice fell into a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned, but the second mouse, he struggled so hard that he eventually churned that cream into butter and he walked out. Amen.” – Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio)
Catch Me If You Can as a film is entertaining enough until the reality sets in that this isn’t just a dream of Steven Spielberg brought to life on the screen — it’s the true story of a teenage crook, and it does nothing to make its criminal hero unlikeable.
In that way, it fails as a fable but succeeds as a folk hero legend.
Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a charmer — he gets it from his unlucky, unsuccessful father (Christopher Walken). After his parents divorce, he runs away from home and forges his way into a career at Pan-Am airlines, which gives him the opportunity to fly all over the country while also giving him the capability to cash phony paychecks. When piloting isn’t enough, he fakes a medical career and eventually turns to the law as a way of appeasing his new fiancee, Brenda Strong (Amy Adams) and her father (Martin Sheen). But as fantastic as his journey is, it’s not without peril as loveless, obsessive FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) stays hot on his trail.
First, look to Spielberg’s chase film as a testament to the talent it holds. Walken is pitiful, yet likeable — a man just trying to make a life for a woman far out of his league and a son deserving of so much more. He’s an honest man who swindles with genuine charm. His son, possessing the same charm, does the same but takes it to another extreme. DiCaprio looks to his father as a hero, hating his mother for the affair she has and always siding on Frank Sr.’s end of the marriage. This in part contributes to his delinquency, as well as sculpts the relationship he has with Carl Hanratty, whom he evades but always talks to on Christmas. When Frank Sr. isn’t around anymore or is too dangerous to be contacted, Carl is the last person who he really cares about Frank Jr.’s whereabouts — and at least it’s something.
This is just one example of Frank Jr.’s victimization. Yes, he steals money from the airlines and puts lives at risk by pretending to be a doctor (like that poor kid who fell off his bike left in the hands of interns). But underneath, he’s a confused kid trying to make a life out of the disaster his parents’ divorce left behind. He’s always had the skills to weasel his way out of situations, as seen when he recommends to a classmate that she crease a fake doctor’s note to make it look like she put it in her pocket. Now he puts them to use and uses the money to buy his father a Cadillac and spoil his fiancee. Deep down, he really loves Brenda — it’s clear from the heartbreak in his face when he has to leave her because Carl is hot on his trail.
But like the story both Abagnale men tell, two mice fall into a bucket of cream, and only one struggles so hard that it turns the cream into butter and walks out. Frank’s not about to drown like the first mouse, but scrambles to survive. Sure enough, he creates a crime-laden butter that helps him get out of the bucket — and the audience cheers him on the entire way.