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*Catch Me If You Can (PG-13)
DreamWorks

*Chicago (PG-13)
Miramax

Two of the season's most anticipated releases -- big names, big sets, plenty of razzle-dazzle -- Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can and the musical Chicago, are less than blockbusters but more than run-of-the-mill fare. Nowhere near as challenging as the huge movies The Two Towers and Gangs of New York, both films entertain with a capital "E." Neither is an unqualified success, but each represents a traditional movie genre geared to be crowd-pleasing, and both are relatively easy to swallow.

Oddly, both films feature corrupt characters out to fleece, seduce and trick the populace at large and both reflect on the elusive nature of fame and celebrity, though they are set in decades separated by 40 years.

Catch Me If You Can, from its stylish, animated opening credits to its peppy John Williams score, exudes the innocence that colors many Spielberg efforts. Though its central character, Frank Abagnale, Jr., played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a notorious con man who in reality impersonated an airline pilot, a lawyer and a pediatrician and succeeded in cashing bogus checks totaling millions of dollars when he was still a teen-ager in the 1960s, he is portrayed as a boy wonder, a Spielbergian creation enamored of life's endless possibilities. And it works, due largely to impeccable casting. DiCaprio is perfect in this role and it's a relief to watch him charm his way through the film after seeing him strain ineffectually for three hours in Gangs of New York.

As depicted by Spielberg, Frank Jr. is motivated to steal and deceive by the financial failure of his father, Frank Sr., brilliantly portrayed by Christopher Walken. Early in the film, we see Walken waltzing his beautiful French wife (Nathalie Baye) in the family living room as young Frank looks on. Soon we see the family's decline as they move to a dingy New Rochelle apartment house, and eventually we witness the family's breakup. Throughout, Walken exudes the hopeful but down-for-the-count despair of ruptured middle age, breaking our hearts with his sad salesman's soft-shoe routine.

Spielberg's skill with the chase (think Jaws and this year's underappreciated wonder Minority Report) shines in Catch Me If You Can with its zippy scene structure, fast-forward rush and tight editing.

If there is a misstep, it is in the casting of longtime Spielberg good buddy Tom Hanks as Carl Hanratty, the FBI agent who makes it his life's work to capture Frank Abagnale, Jr. Hanratty is the first to realize that the country's top check forger is just a kid, and his cat-and-mouse game with Abagnale, played out over a few years, is fascinating, eventually morphing into a distorted but touching father-and-son dynamic. But Hanks chews the scenery so vigorously, his Boston accent ballooning with every scene, that it becomes almost embarrassing to watch. After the tender, effective pairing of DiCaprio and Walken, Hanks' characterization feels wretchedly off the mark.

That said, the rest of Catch Me If You Can feels like an effortless spellbinder, a toe-tapping walk on the wild side.

Chicago, on the other hand, is suitably down and dirty, all decked out in satin and lace, black fishnets and low-plunging camisoles. Based on the stage musical that has been revamped numerous times, most recently in 1996 with dancer Ann Reinking choreographing in memory of her mentor Bob Fosse (Cabaret), it vaguely tells the story of two women in the 1920s, Roxie Hart (Rene Zellweger) and Velma Kelley (Catherine Zeta-Jones), both guilty of murder but who charmed their way to exoneration with the help of sleazy lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere).

Directed by musical theater veteran Rob Marshall, it's more a filmed stage play than a movie musical in the classic sense. Characters don't burst into song while hanging the laundry out; Chicago is about showbiz and most of its numbers occur onstage or are staged in black-box reverie.

The social commentary is biting and apt if slightly clichd: Fame is fleeting; the media is fickle.

But who cares? What Chicago is really about is the old bump and grind. Catherine Zeta-Jones is cold and powerful as Velma, a hoofer with a heart of steel. Her singing is top-notch and her dancing, though not quite long and leggy, is lurid and assured. Richard Gere is suitably smarmy as attorney Flynn, and his courtroom "Razzle Dazzle" number is one of the film's nasty pleasures. John C. Reilly is Chicago's most pleasant surprise, turning in a tour de force performance as Roxie Hart's hapless and devoted husband Amos (who Flynn thoughtlessly calls Andy). Reilly's musical solo "Mr. Cellophane" is unforgettably sweet and touching.

Which brings us to Rene Zellweger who carries the weight of the film on her pale, bony shoulders. As Roxie Hart -- media darling, murderess, vamp and dreamer -- Zellweger gives it her all. She's frighteningly effective in a scene with Gere where she moves like a puppet, emotionless and spineless, flopping at his tug and pull. But her singing pales next to Zeta-Jones and supporting star Queen Latifa (Mama, the prison warden). And her dancing, while technically adept, appears tight and somewhat strained. She gets A-pluses for effort and C's for comfort level. In the movie's final scene, a can-can with Zellweger and Zeta-Jones, the contrast between the two performers becomes apparent. Zeta-Jones barely breaks a sweat and radiates confidence while the camera zooms up her front-side, baring all. Zellweger chews her powder-puff lips and chugs along, keeping up.

Chicago is a fun and fancy little cup of poison, a cynical song and dance, a romp across a gravestone -- it's show-biz, baby. In the infamous words of Velma Kelley: "Always leave 'em wantin' somethin' more."

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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