Here in the land of opportunity, we pride ourselves on taking one another at face value. That's why in a culture that falls all over itself to invest glamorous images with substance, any quick-witted trickster can have a field day pretending to be what he's not.
In the opening scene of ''Catch Me if You Can,'' Steven Spielberg's supremely entertaining portrait of a virtuoso impostor, its protagonist, Frank W. Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), appears on ''To Tell the Truth,'' the archetypal television game show celebrating mendacity and fraud. Before his 19th birthday, the announcer proclaims, Frank successfully impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer, and made millions of dollars forging checks.
As the camera surveys the three contestants, there's Mr. DiCaprio in the middle, the faintest twinkle of mischief in his snaky eyes, his baby face gone playfully poker. Mr. DiCaprio's portrayal of this brilliant fraud is, in a word, sensational (and far more confident, by the way, than his stolid star turn in ''Gangs of New York''). An extraordinarily fluid and instinctive actor, Mr. DiCaprio has always conveyed the slippery acuity of a chameleon whiz kid who could talk his way in and out of any situation, and his performance is a glorious exhibition of artful, intuitive slipping, sliding and wriggling.
In ''Catch Me if You Can,'' the 28-year-old actor melts into the body and mind of a wily, precocious teenager who turns himself into a master forger. Adding depth to his performance is the flashing intensity with which he conveys Frank's mercurial bouts of insecurity and panic. Even while his character is flying high, Mr. DiCaprio understands that Frank is a wounded boy, and the actor remains in intimate touch with the childish desperation behind his bravado.
Initially at least, Frank's goal isn't a selfish urge to find a shortcut to the high life, but to recoup the standard of living lost by his larcenous father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken), who is being hounded by the I.R.S. for tax fraud. The son also vaguely imagines that with enough money he can reunite his parents, who split up early in the movie. In the most poignant scene, a lawyer announces to the stunned youth that his parents are divorcing, and in the next breath insists he choose between them. Frank refuses and runs away from home to begin his career of kiting checks.
A major strand of the film is a father-son love story, in which Frank hungrily absorbs his shady dad's lessons in deception, bribery and sweet talk. The chemistry between Mr. DiCaprio and Mr. Walken (giving one of his strongest, most sympathetic screen performances) is so charged the two actors actually seem to share the same reptilian genes.
''Catch Me if You Can'' moves in pirouetting leaps and dips that mirror its peripatetic antihero's shifting identities and changes of fortune. The game-show excerpt, which follows a cool-handed animated title sequence, sets the lighthearted tone of a movie that admires Frank almost to the point of suspending moral judgment.
From here, the film hops over to France in 1969 to observe Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), the strait-laced F.B.I. agent who has pursued Frank with a Javert-like persistence, confront him with the roster of criminal charges in a grim Marseille prison. Then it bounces back to 1963 in New Rochelle where the fresh-faced 15-year-old Frank and his French mother, Paula (Nathalie Baye), are attending a cozy Rotary Club ceremony honoring Frank Sr., whose fortunes are about to take a dive.
The film eventually makes stops in Miami, Los Angeles, Atlanta and New Orleans. Some of the wittiest scenes find Frank engaged to an adoring airheaded nurse, Brenda Strong (Amy Adams), whom he meets during his brief career impersonating a doctor. He so charms her unctuous father, Roger (Martin Sheen), a New Orleans prosecutor, into imagining they're fellow romantics that Roger helps him establish a new identity as an assistant prosecutor. Frank's television textbook for courtroom decorum is ''Perry Mason.''
To describe ''Catch Me if You Can'' (which takes its title from the autobiography of the real Frank Abagnale) as a smart, funny caper film is to ignore its strain of sly social satire. If the spine of the story is the elaborate cat-and-mouse game of Frank and Carl, the movie, written by Jeff Nathanson, is also a delicately barbed reflection on the American character and the giddy 60's ethos that allowed Frank to live out his fantasies. The 60's, you may recall, were the decade when jobs became ''gigs.'' And John Williams's uncharacteristically jaunty, saxophone-flavored score captures that spirit of frisky devil-may-care merriment.
The film's cheeky attitude is distilled in a fable Frank Sr. passes down to his son about two mice who fall into a vat of cream. One mouse instantly drowns, while the other puts up such a furious struggle that the cream turns into butter and the mouse walks out. That story is repeated three times in the movie, the third time as a ludicrous mealtime blessing Frank delivers at the Strongs' dinner table.
Without referring to the burgeoning hippie culture or to the era's radical politics, drugs and rock 'n' roll, ''Catch Me if You Can'' captures the frivolous side of the 60's: the decade of ''The Pink Panther'' movies, ''The Girl From Ipanema,'' the Rat Pack and James Bond. A clip of Sean Connery and Honor Blackman swapping double-entendres in ''Goldfinger'' introduces a delicious scene, set to the silky purr of Dusty Springfield's ''Look of Love,'' in which Frank, impersonating a junior-size Bond wannabe, outwits a high-priced call girl.
Among Frank's assumed identities, the one he savors the most is airline pilot. And the movie's zaniest scenes remind us of those tinselly days when air travel was sold as sex in the sky. Before the arrival of the metal detector lent aviation an ominous undertone, every airline passenger was a jet setter, uniformed pilots rivaled astronauts in masculine sex appeal, and a lubricious novelty like ''Coffee, Tea or Me? The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses'' could be a best seller.
The movie's recurrent images of squealing, strutting flight attendants batting their eyes at the pilots are a hilarious throwback to a swinging 60's just before a resurgent feminism rewrote the rules of courtship and airline employment, and turned stewardesses from jiggly, compliant bunnies into crisply efficient flight attendants.
Arguably the best-acted of any Spielberg film, ''Catch Me if You Can'' finds Mr. Hanks displaying his usual aplomb. The actor hones a severe, potentially drab role into an incisive, touching character study of a lonely, humorless New England workaholic whose adrenaline is fired by a cat-and-mouse game in which he loses all the early rounds. Over time, Carl develops a respect and a paternal fondness for Frank. And in the movie's finale, the father-son theme culminates in Frank having to choose between the values of his real father and the surrogate dad who reined him in.
''Catch Me'' is the most charming of Mr. Spielberg's mature films, because is it so relaxed. Instead of trying to conjure fairy-tale magic, wring tears or insinuate a message, it is happy just to be its delicious, genially sophisticated self.