Mentors,the Friendmakers Two Christmas Day blockbusters make the most of older, wiser men and their underlings.

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Julian's at the Heritage

Catch Me If You Can Sat.Julian'sDirected by Steven Spielberg

Stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen and Nathalie Baye

Opens Dec. 25 at local theatersSat.$$$1/2Julian'sSat.Julian's at the HeritageAntwone Fisher Sat.Julian'sDirected by Denzel Washington

Stars Derek Luke, Denzel Washington and Joy Bryant

Opens Dec. 25 at local theatersSat.$$$From the looks of last week's dueling epics, Gangs of New York and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, it'd be easy to conclude that this year's holiday season is all about big, bloody battles for the soul of man. Well, the next wave of holiday movies is upon us, and it's back to basics. In the two big Christmas films being released this week, Antwone Fisher and Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, fun, family and tough-but- ultimately-uplifting drama rule, although not necessarily in that order.

On the surface, the films opening this week are very different animals, but each contains most of the same basic building blocks that audiences demand at this time of year. It's just the proportions of those basic elements that differ from movie to movie.

Antwone Fisher, the first film directed by Denzel Washington, is a sort of African-American Equus, starring Washington himself as a navy psychiatrist doing his best to help a troubled young seaman. Catch Me If You Can is the story of the world's most successful con man, a human chameleon who sprinted through life changing his identity at the drop of a hat. Both movies are based on true stories.

Atwone Fisher is a serious drama, Catch Me If You Can is a breezy adventure. At their centers, though, both movies are about young men with problems, who get better.

The problems plaguing both of the characters in these films stem from cracks in the family, and both characters deal with these issues, at least initially, by not dealing with them, by running from them and from themselves. Oh yeah, and both of the young men in these movies wind up turning at least one antagonistic relationship into a close attachment and transforming an older male character into a father figure. 'Tis the season.

Catch Me If You Can doesn't ram it down our throats, but everything in the movie begins and ends with family. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Frank Abagnale, a high school dropout who in the 1960s successfully impersonated a doctor, a lawyer and an airline pilot, and who passed some $4-million worth of forged checks, all before his 21st birthday.

As the movie tells it, Frank takes his cue from his dad, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken), by all appearances an upstanding citizen, but one who also has a bit of the con man in him. When Frank Jr.'s family falls on hard times and his mother and father split up (a plot point made particularly salient by Spielberg, cinema's most famous child of divorce), the boy deals with the pain by heading for nearby New York City, where he immediately embarks on a series of small-time scams. Frank eventually has a revelation: It's all about appearances — if you look the part, you are the part. In the ultimate application of the old cliche about clothes making the man, Frank snags a pilot's uniform and, in the first of a series of major scams, passes himself off as one of Pan Am's finest. Almost instantly, he finds people falling all over themselves to do exactly what he wants.

Doors open and, with them, people's wallets (not to mention the legs of pretty young girls), and Frank soon finds himself rolling in money and respect. He also soon finds himself being pursued by the FBI, in the form of agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), a dedicated but humorless man who can't even tell a decent knock-knock joke. Spielberg has fun contrasting Frank's freewheeling joie de vivre with Hanratty's drab persistence (Frank buys James Bond-style clothes and cars, Hanratty washes his own clothes in a public Laundromat) and bolsters the movie's emotional core by playing on the grudging admiration that develops between the adversaries.

A bond inevitably forms between the younger and older man, both of whom are essentially loners, or at least lonely. Frank even telephones his pursuer to chat every Christmas Eve, both because he knows exactly where to find him (Hanratty is always at work), and because Frank has no one else to talk to. When the pilot scam gets too risky, Frank moves on to impersonating a doctor, then a lawyer (he does research by watching Dr. Kildare and Perry Mason on TV), and Hanratty remains on his tail every inch of the way.

All of this is handled in a brisk, bright and thoroughly amiable manner. From its pleasantly retro opening credits, complete with John Williams' Pink Panther-era Mancini-esque score, Catch Me If You Can announces itself as glossy Fun with a Capital F, a snappy old-school caper that never takes itself too seriously. The movie's first scene announces the agenda, re-creating an old episode of To Tell the Truth featuring none other than Frank Abagnale himself. To Tell the Truth was, in its day, the ultimate life-as-a-game game show (panelists had to guess which of three guests was actually who he or she claimed to be), and Frank was the biggest game player on the block.

Catch Me If You Can is a romp, and it never gets too dark to spoil the frivolity, even in those rare moments when Spielberg allows Frank's nagging personal problems to start bubbling towards the surface. Frank is a crook, of course, but his heart is made of solid gold and we never, ever see the suffering of any of the victims of his many crimes. As Spielberg would have it (and the real Abagnale too, who, after all, wrote the autobiography on which the movie's based), Frank only robbed people who "deserved" it — big banks, corporations, hookers, hypocrites and the like. He's a modern day Robin Hood, albeit one who bypasses the poor and turns the loot directly over to himself.

The ethical sugar-coating doesn't exactly make for much depth, but this simply wasn't intended to be a movie about soul-searching — and that was probably a wise choice on Spielberg's part. Catch Me If You Can lets us know about its hero's demons by giving us brief but telling glimpses of them (Frank never quite gets over his parents' busted marriage), but it never drags us down into that particular abyss. The movie is relentlessly upbeat and as solidly entertaining as anything Spielberg's done in ages, a slick little cat-and-mouse suspense with some great 1960s color (we even get obligatory renditions of Astrid Gilberto's "Girl from Ipanema" and Dusty Springfield's "Look of Love").

What Spielberg never quite says, because he doesn't really need to, is that Frank is living so many other people's lives because he's not comfortable living his own. The boy runs and runs, from one fake existence to another, seeking approval from a daddy who isn't there. Ultimately he's just running from himself, which is exactly what the eponymous hero of Antwone Fisher does in somewhat less nimble fashion.

Denzel Washington's quietly confident directorial debut is a moving but fairly predictable tale about troubled kids and their mentors, very much in the tradition of Good Will Hunting, Ordinary People and way too many others to mention. Washington, looking a touch paunchier and more world-weary than usual, plays Dr. Jerome Davenport, a dedicated shrink who takes bright, sensitive but dangerously hot-headed Antwone (Derek Luke) under his wing. When the boy's sent to see Davenport, a battle of wills ensues that inevitably leads to bonding, as Antwone gradually dredges up repressed memories of an abusive foster mother and a seriously screwed-up childhood that led to a lifetime of isolation and low self-esteem.

Washington coaches solid performances from his entire cast, particularly from Luke, who effectively conveys both the gentle naivete and confused anger of Fisher. Washington's directorial style is admirably restrained (a flashier approach might have reduced this already overheated material to pap), but the script fails to offer many real surprises. There will always be an audience for stories like this, but there's really little here that we haven't seen before.

The movie engages us with the sincerity and occasional intensity of its drama, but it's a little too eager to provide a reason for every character flaw it introduces, dotting i's, crossing t's and resolving every open end pretty much exactly as you'd expect. Almost everything that happens in Antwone Fisher happens on the surface, resulting in the odd phenomenon of a movie that's all about emotions and psychology but ultimately lacks much emotional or psychological depth.

For a first effort, Washington's film is effective but not particularly remarkable, a little like one of those Oprah book club selections with lots of exhaustively rendered pain and tears, a series of revelations that aren't really revelatory, all culminating in an uplifting but unsurprising pay-off. 'Tis the season, after all, for movies about the mistreated man-child struggling with his demons — but Denzel might have taken a cue or two from guys like Spielberg who understand that sometimes less really is more.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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