' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Catch Me If You Can (1989)

Friday, May 03, 2024

Friday's Old Fashioned: Catch Me If You Can (1989)

Stephen Sommers of “The Mummy” (1999) has not directed a movie since 2013’s trouble-laden Dean Koontz adaptation “Odd Thomas,” possibly bookending a career that also began with some production difficulties. Not to be confused with Steven Spielberg’s 2002 “Catch Me If You Can, 1989’s “Catch Me If You Can” was Sommers’s directorial debut, made for just $800,000 and screened at Cannes where it was apparently snatched up by a studio that contemporary accounts indicate went belly up, leaving the movie orphaned and ultimately released straight to video. A cruel fate, I understand, though given its street racing subject matter, it feels appropriate for a B movie, and I’m honestly disappointed I didn’t discover it years ago as one of those movies our local Fox affiliate would screen on winter Saturday afternoons as counterprogramming to Big Ten basketball games. Speaking of the Big Ten, “Catch Me If You Can” (Stephen’s Version) was filmed in his native Minnesota, in and around St. Cloud. It shows in the vibrant autumn colors and the familiar geography of my many trips to my dad’s Minnesota hometown about two hours southeast of the state’s 12th most populous city. Despite this, and despite filming parts of the movie in Sommers’s actual St. Cloud high school, the setting, it turns out, is not really Minnesota at all.

It has been chronicled ad nauseam that 1980s America was infused with a nostalgia for 1950s America, a nostalgia famously lived out in “Back to the Future” (1985) by having its protagonist literally time travel to the Age of Eisenhower. There is no time travel in “Catch Me If You Can,” but it’s like the 1950s never left, or as if the fetish for them is so extravagant an entire community has agreed to act as if the 1950s never left. Sommers may have deployed a Tangerine Dream score, but the soundtrack is infused with 1950s hits and the Principal (Geoffrey Lewis) has a precious jukebox inside his office on which he plays oldies but goodies over the school PA system, functioning as much like a dee jay as an administrative head, Wolfman Jack as Principal Strickland. Costuming feels like an amalgamation of the two decades, epitomized in semi-bad boy Dylan (Matt Lattanzi), dressed like a 1950s greaser, that aesthetic emphasized in the character’s love of illegal street racing upon which the story turns. Struggling to save her high school from being closed with standard candy bar sales, Class President Melissa (Loryn Locklin) turns to Dylan instead, wagering money from the school treasury on Dylan’s races and winning big, until they cross street racing kingpin Johnny Phatmun (M. Emmet Walsh), and it all goes wrong.

At first, this bizarre mélange feels agreeably surreal. When one student is asked how he earned detention, he replies “Killing a freshman,” and given the prevailing mood, you’re libel to believe him, as if “Catch Me If You Can” has fused like the heightened tone of “Bottoms” with the noir-inflected high school movie “Brick” but if “Brick” had foregone noir for 1950s hot rod movies. Yet, the longer “Catch Me If You Can” goes, the more disappointingly conventional it becomes. It was a debut made for relative peanuts and it’s harsh to be harsh, but it screams of a movie that needed better editing, both moment-to-moment and in the long run, as the pace slackens both ways as it moves along. And as that hour and forty-five minutes gets longer, the movie loses its sense of playfulness and wittiness, taking its clichés with far too straight a face, unable to skewer them, or transcend them, or really make them sing, as a movie having fun with B movies just sort of becomes a B movie.

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