Have a Very Leo Noel

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MIRAMAX, DREAMWORKS

Tough and tender Leo: 'In Gangs of New York' he is an 1860s gang lord; in 'Catch Me If You Can' he's a 1960s smoothie

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CATCH ME IF YOU CAN
STARRING: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen
DIRECTED BY: Steven Spielberg

One staple of our popular culture, comedy division, is the Road Runner — Wile E. Coyote duel, in which the cheerful little beeper continually eludes the inept but monomaniacal chasings of the pursuing varmint. Another less often noted but more sober pop-cultural theme is Steven Spielberg's obsession with children (E.T., Empire of the Sun, et al.) who as a result of either death or divorce are bereft of conventional parenting and wonder if they can successfully make it to maturity. It is the business of Catch Me If You Can to meld these two subgenres in a single film and see what happens — which turns out to be very amusing.

The movie follows the autobiography of Frank W. Abagnale Jr., a reformed con man. His parents separated when he was 14. Asked to choose one or the other to live with, he couldn't make the choice, so he skipped town for New York City. Looking older than his years, he acquired a pilot's uniform and a forged ID. He was soon afforded many boons — free trips around the country, girls (who flocked to this really cute guy in his fly-boy suit) and, best of all, the ability to cash fraudulent checks largely on the basis of his assured and glamorous presence. Before Abagnale's career ended five years later — the movie compresses the time frame — he had also passed himself off as a doctor and lawyer and acquired $2.5 million in ill-gotten gains and the avid attention of the FBI, which caught and imprisoned him.

Here the film, written with unforced ease by Jeff Nathanson and directed in the same graceful spirit by Spielberg, makes its largest fictional leap; it conflates several FBI pursuers into one. But that's more than all right, because Carl Hanratty is wonderfully played by Tom Hanks. He wears half-horn-rims and a dorky little hat, speaks in a grating Boston accent and tends to spend his Christmas Eves at the office eating Chinese takeout and obsessing about Abagnale. It's a delicious comic portrayal, though not more so than Leonardo DiCaprio's charming impersonation of Abagnale, which is simultaneously naive and knowing. Abagnale's life is shadowed by his failed father (played with melancholic anger by a superb Christopher Walken), who had the spirit of a con artist but none of the breed's subtle skills.

There is a happy ending, which would be imprudent to reveal. Suffice it to say Abagnale was a smart cookie, with the wit to see that his talents might have value in the straight world and the late-blooming moral intelligence not to take too much pride in his boyish exploits. As years passed, he married, had kids, prospered and recognized that what he had done in his youth was not very nice, to say the least. Abagnale's story, combined with Nathanson's sensitivity to his family situation and Spielberg's interest in lost boys who manage to find their best selves, results in about the nicest movie you could ask for at the holidays: a gently funny, sweetly adventurous film that makes you feel genuinely good, that is to say, entirely unconned by false sentiment or sharp, overmanipulative Hollywood practices. --By Richard Schickel

25th HOUR
STARRING: Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper
DIRECTED BY: Spike Lee

Halfway through his long day's journey into night, and day again, Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) launches into a rant against New York: "F___ you and this city and everyone in it!" He spreads his venom ecumenically — to the Pakistani cab drivers and the black schoolyard studs and the Soprano wannabes in Bensonhurst, and to the Irish-American boyos of whom Monty is one. It's a swell swill of gutter poetry — written by novelist-screenwriter David Benioff and vigorously illustrated in a tabloid-surrealist style by director Spike Lee — that touches on everything New Yorkers, and Americans, love to hate about the big city.

Aside from that Grucci Brothers skyrocket of invective, 25th Hour is pretty lethargic stuff. Monty, a convicted drug dealer on his last day before he is to report to prison, does more moping than moving. The virtue of this brutal downer is on the edges, in the evocation of New York after 9/11: depressed, cratered, postapocalyptic. The film suggests that Gothamites have been frozen in their tracks, like emotional zombies waiting to see if the next attack can make them feel deader than they already do.
--RC

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