Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Back in the days when Steven Spielberg created movies that made our popcorn taste better, the director famously tucked into his fun-house flicks a precious but unique calling card: a shooting star. The first sighting was in Jaws, the streaking ray of light an ominous sign that the next morning was going to be a bad one for Chief Brody and the boys—but a blissfully pants-wetting one for us. After that, Spielberg sent stars, now representing wonder rather than warning, zipping through Close Encounters of the Third Kind and over Indiana Jones’ beat-up fedora. Fanboys claim that this trademark touch can be seen in every one of the director’s movies. Maybe so. But as the Master of Light has aged—and has self-importantly forced upon his audiences more hackneyed messages than happy smiles—shooting stars have become harder and harder to find.

So it’s certainly no coincidence, then, that in Catch Me If You Can’s opening-credits sequence—a winking nod to the angular animation of Hitchcock title-man Saul Bass—a veritable storm of stars can be seen raining on the heads of two cartoon men involved in a quick-footed game of cat-and-mouse. With the cocktail-doom of composer John Williams’ Henry Mancini-meets-Bernard

Hermann score juicing up the show, Spielberg lets us know early on that he’s taking a breather from man’s inhumanity to man (or to boy robots, for that matter), and that he’s back to making sure our snack-stand booty tastes pretty damn good.

Inspired by the 1980 autobiography of Frank Abagnale Jr., who spent his late teens and early 20s masquerading as pilots, doctors, and lawyers—not to mention “paperhanging” the globe with more than $2.5 million in ingeniously crafted rubber checks—Catch Me If You Can is essentially a sharp, bouncy road movie in which good guys and bad guys are equally cheerable. Set in only the most fabulously modish parts of the ’60s, the puberty-to-pettifoggery film joyfully borrows from such mass-appeal thrillers as North by Northwest and from such sex-in-the-skies trash as Coffee, Tea or Me?. And although Spielberg is still mulling bad-daddy issues (and still lets this one run too long), Catch Me If You Can is without a doubt his most entertaining work in years.

In a role that he wears as well as those crisp bewinged pilot duds, Leonardo DiCaprio is a flat-out charmer as Abagnale, who, when forced at 16 to choose between his divorcing parents, instead bolts the blue-collar ‘burbs for New York City, on his own with nothing but a suitcase and a starter-kit checkbook. Spielberg bathes his shattered-home scenes in muted colors and a grainy light, glum surroundings for a still awkward boy who loves his fed-up mother (French star Nathalie Baye) but worships his disillusioned pop, a likable but law-skirting stationery salesman (Christopher Walken, who convincingly replaces his infamous creepiness with a teetering-on-the-brink sadness).

Sociopathically determined to alter his surroundings, Abagnale pulls his first wool in high school, pretending to be a substitute teacher—and even holding a parent-teacher conference. And once the young man—after a series of bumps and bruises while learning the art of the grift—catches first sight of an all-powerful airline pilot surrounded by beautiful women, Spielberg flips the fun switch, splashing the movie with all the yummy colors of the worldwide sweet shop his protagonist is about to swindle. You gotta smile as DiCaprio, his baby-blue peepers twinkling, his posture and smile growing from guarded to defiant, morphs into a sly ‘n’ swingin’ Cary Grant right before your eyes.

Through brilliant strokes of cunning, curiosity, and honey-dripped compliments, Abagnale infiltrates the details-intensive worlds of both banking and flying, passing bad checks, “deadheading” to exotic locales, and bedding giggly women wherever he lands. It’s nothing short of the ultimate male fantasy, and Spielberg has a ball with these scenes of sweet freedom, his camera as dizzied as Abagnale’s pretty little head.

Soon enough, sad-sack FBI agent Carl Hanratty (a fattened Tom Hanks, obviously relishing his role as the film’s bumbling, Joe Friday-esque punch line) is assigned to the case. Of course, he doesn’t have the brains to catch his man, no matter how close he gets. The first encounter between the G-man and the con man is priceless: Abagnale, literally under the gun, so flummoxes Hanratty in a Miami hotel room that the former eventually winds up taking orders from the latter, who slyly passes himself off as a colleague and then zips out the door.

Credit Spielberg for building and maintaining a playful tension throughout without relying on the threat of violence or a tragic end. (A flash-forward preface pretty much tells us that everything’s gonna work out just fine.) In fact, whenever things are getting serious, there’s a smartly rendered laugh to remind us that this is action-comedy: A hilarious James Bond dream sequence—007 being only slightly cooler an airline pilot—segues into a who’s-screwing-whom chess match between Abagnale and a high-priced call girl (Alias’ Jennifer Garner). When Abganale impersonates an emergency-room doc, he hurls at the sight of blood. And when Hanratty and his bumbling cohorts, always more than a few steps behind their man, invade Abagnale’s Atlanta singles-complex bungalow—complete with a conversation pit—the camera follows the close-up crisscrossing of guns before finally settling on a fondue pot.

For the film’s most dazzling set piece—in which Abagnale, trying to flee to Europe, seems to be all but caught after a girlfriend gives him up—our hero convinces a handful of giggly college coeds into believing they have been selected for Pan Am stewardess training. Surrounded by the wide-grinning women and bathed in a sunny, Old Hollywood-glorious glow, Abagnale—to the big, brassy accompaniment of Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me,” no less—strolls through an agent-strewn airport, well aware that the cops are more interested in the leggy ladies than the wanted man in the middle. The payoff to this bamboozle has gotta be the year’s most crowd-pleasing moment.

If Spielberg falters at all, it’s in Catch Me If You Can’s final act, in which father-child relationships—Abagnale and his dad, Abagnale and surrogate-pop Hanratty, even Hanratty and his own daughter—are laboriously examined, in an unnecessary attempt to give the movie a heft it lacks elsewhere. But that extra half-hour is a small price to pay for a movie in which Spielberg once again gives us something to savor in almost every scene. My favorite visual treat? Early on, Abagnale, mastering the art of forgery, submerges dozens of glistening toy planes in a hotel bathtub, loosening the Pan Am labels on the models and then pasting them onto phony checks, hundreds of which are spread out on the carpet. The sleek, silver planes and bright white paper might not be shooting stars, but trust me: They shine even brighter. CP