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Spielberg decides it's time to have some serious fun

Holiday Sneaks

For years, the Oscar-winning director has poured his passion into such socially incisive projects as 'Schindler's List,' 'Amistad' and 'Minority Report.' Then along comes 'Catch Me if You Can,' a lighthearted tale that romps through innocence, larceny and human fallibility. Why? 'I needed this,' he says.

November 03, 2002|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

Standing in front of a Pasadena house festooned with lights right out of Christmas 1963, Steven Spielberg is amused to find himself in a universe far, far away from his usual extravaganzas of the dinosaur/World War II/futuristic robot variety. In this safe, homey world, there are no blue screens, flying henchman, scientific wizardry or multiple whirling cameras.

For Spielberg, "Catch Me if You Can," the tragicomic tale of a teenage con man, is a lark, a welcome respite from his weighty films of the last decade. As the director puts it: "I needed this. It sort of came along and rescued me."

The film explores lighthearted larceny on a human scale; in one of the rare instances since "Sugarland Express," Spielberg's first film, human foibles drive the story.

Of course, the life it's based on -- that of Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) -- is not pedestrian, but big-screen-sized. As a teenager on the lam from his parent's divorce, Abagnale successfully impersonated a pediatrician at a Georgia hospital, a state attorney and a raft of airline pilots, impressively running scams and bouncing checks all over the world for millions of dollars. He is pursued around the world by a relentless modern-day Javert, an FBI agent played by Oscar winner Tom Hanks. Abagnale also romanced a veritable platoon of beauties, most with no idea that their suave Romeo was but a kid, several years their junior. "Leo kisses a lot of girls," says the director, noting what undoubtedly will be one of the film's selling points when it opens Christmas Day.

The film is an ode to the innocence of the '60s, an evocation of an earlier America, when pillbox-hatted stewardesses were chic and men wore dark-rimmed glasses and buzz cuts. A misdirected teenager running scams with the insouciant charm of young Cary Grant seems positively benign in a world of Columbine and snipers. Spielberg particularly likes the tale's improbable but true (and morally satisfying) finale: Abagnale is now one of the country's leading experts on fraud, working extensively with Fortune 500 companies and the FBI, the same agency that spent years hunting him down.

In some ways, it's a case of one shape-shifting boy wonder turning the limelight on another. For Spielberg, 55, it's also a vehicle for some of his fastest and dirtiest movie-making ever. It's hardly guerrilla-style -- everything whirs with the smooth efficiency of a top-of-the-line BMW -- but it does proceed at a blistering pace, 38 locations in the U.S. and Canada in 55 days.

With its frisky tone and waggish lead, the $55-million "Catch Me if You Can" certainly is lighter than his recent material, though not "Indiana Jones 4," which he's also preparing. "I'm just at a point in my life right now where I just want to react to things I'm interested in, as opposed to trying to be somebody who I used to be to people who would like me to go back," he says.

Whatever the Spielberg-ologists make of the movie, the director seems to be having fun. "This is like 'Playhouse 90.' It's like live TV," he says, enthusiastic about his dive into raw, human-sized filmmaking.

In Pasadena this past spring, Spielberg is mostly entranced with watching an ethereal, dark-eyed, 5-year-old moppet in pink footie pajamas. "Such a great face, a great face," he says with admiration.

Spielberg has not only borrowed Steven Soderbergh's casting director (Debra Zane) but also the Coen brothers' costume designer, Mary Zophres, who gives the movie a look of bright-eyed buoyancy, a self-conscious wittiness about the wholesomeness of the '60s. It's hard not to giggle seeing DiCaprio, decked out in a baby-blue shorts jumpsuit or a Creamsicle-hued sports get-up, though he maintains enough clean-cut sexual panache to carry it off.

In this scene, DiCaprio's genial swagger has caved in. He looks haggard and scared, his skin the color of dishwater, his hair lank, his clothes shabby. The FBI is on his tail, and he's returned to his mother's house to confront her about her failed marriage to his father.

DiCaprio is knocking on the window trying to get his half-sister -- who doesn't know him -- to open the door. The camera pans over his shoulder, lingering on the warmth within the house as a stark contrast to the cold outside, his sister enjoying the glow of a security and love that's been ripped away from him.

"Not your face, just your cheek and nose," Spielberg reminds DiCaprio, before telling the camera crew, "Don't cut. Just keep rolling." It's a strategy often employed by directors to keep energy flowing.

"If I can just make faces at her," suggests DiCaprio, and tries unsuccessfully to get a rise out of the little girl, who watches him with wide-eyed wonder, all the while holding a harmonica. "Tell her to laugh a little here."

"Let her do what she wants," Spielberg says. "It might be surprising."

In successive takes, the little girl grows more and more responsive. When DiCaprio taps at the window, she shyly taps back, and then begins to mouth her harmonica.

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