Catch Me If You Can

“An honest man has nothing to fear,” Frank Abagnale Jr. tells his father in a letter. “So I’m trying my best not to be afraid.”

The problem is that Frank is not an honest man and therefore has every reason to be afraid. The FBI is on his tail, and his web of lies is spreading more every day, reaching into every single aspect of his life. Surely all of this will come crashing down. Surely fear is something Frank ought to feel a lot of.

Steven Spielberg’s thoroughly enjoyable new film “Catch Me If You Can” does not focus on the fear that pervades the life of a con artist, though, choosing to dwell instead on the entertainment value of Frank’s story. And that element is considerable. We honest folk enjoy hearing tales of cleverness and thievery, from “The Sting” to “Ocean’s Eleven,” particularly when the bad guys don’t hurt or kill anyone. “Catch Me If You Can” is Spielberg’s most agenda-free, just-for-kicks story since “The Lost World,” and the boyish love of a good romp that made his films of the 1980s so enjoyable is evident in every corner.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank Abagnale Jr. in this slightly fictionalized account of the real-life Abagnale, who posed as an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer for six years in the 1960s, evading the FBI and passing bad checks the entire time before finally being captured.

As depicted in the film, Frank comes by his talents for lying naturally, his father (Christopher Walken) being a small-time con man himself occasionally, when it suits him. Dad has a stationery store in upstate New York with a lot of IRS troubles, and he sweet-talks his way out of problems whenever possible. It is worth noting that he is not nearly as successful at fooling people as his much handsomer, more charming son is.

Frank Jr., devastated by his parents’ sudden divorce, leaves home at age 16. He winds up in New York City, where he observes that airline pilots are treated like celebrities and are always surrounded by gorgeous stewardesses. Soon, he is passing himself off as a pilot and manufacturing (and cashing) fake payroll checks from PanAm at hotels that cater to pilots.

It snowballs from there, though the film’s major flaw is that we’re not shown how or why. One minute Frank is cashing checks for $300; next thing we know, he has bilked a total of $1.5 million. How did he go from penny-ante stuff to large-scale embezzlement? What motivated him to stop making a living and start making a fortune? His motives are not evil: The only individual (rather than billionaire corporation) he’s ever shown defrauding is a prostitute.

But again, the film’s focus is the adventure of it all, not the psychology behind it. To that end, we spend a lot of time with Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), the humorless FBI agent who is doggedly pursuing Frank. Armed with a businesslike attitude, a harsh New England accent and a no-nonsense G-man hat, Hanks is a slightly cartoonish version of the classic government agent, a cross between “Dragnet’s” Joe Friday and, well, Tom Hanks. Not since “The Fugitive” have both sides of the law been so charismatic and worthy of being rooted for.

DiCaprio’s performance is impressive, better than “Gangs of New York” and certainly better than “Titanic.” The role is perfect for him: Both he and Frank can play kids as well as grown-ups, and here he often has to play both in the same scene. DiCaprio more than adequately conveys the kid-in-a-candy-store mentality of a teenager who has stumbled onto a great scheme. In the rare moments when Frank is dragged back into reality, the disappointment on his face is almost heartbreaking, like a little kid who’s been busted for doing something really fun that happens to be against the rules.

B+ (2 hrs., 20 min.; PG-13, one harsh profanity, brief sexuality, some hospital gore.)