Leo rising? 

Last week's movie-related doings included one unexpectedly intense spectacle: Leonardo DiCaprio taking to TV's "Dateline NBC" and "Today" programs to deny rumors that his incessant carousing had interfered with the already tumultuous shoot of Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York."

"I would have to be a complete and utter moron to spoil an opportunity to work with Martin Scorsese by going out to clubs," the earnest young actor told Katie Couric.

Unwittingly, he was echoing the holiday movie season's million-dollar question: Is Leonardo DiCaprio a complete and utter moron, or not? Certainly, "Titanic"-bashers (a group to which this reviewer does not belong) have progressively stepped up their vocal support of the "is" platform, leaving even the most dogged of the "not a moron" adherents whimpering, "But he was so good in 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape?'" Prince Leo's leading-man status in two of the most important pictures of the moment -- the aforementioned Gangs and Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can" -- represents an opportunity for the viewing public to decide once and for all if he's going to remembered as a thespian of substance, like Marlon Brando, or an inordinately rewarded buffoon, like -- well, have I used Marlon Brando already? (For the purposes of this argument, I'm deliberately not counting "The Beach:" Everybody is entitled to one post-blockbuster disaster.)

Disaster is what many had predicted for "Gangs of New York," a sprawling historical epic inspired by author Herbert Asbury's 1928 account of turf battles in the Manhattan of the 1800s. On Scorsese's radar since the 1970s, the film's protracted production cycle was fraught with hardships, including alleged squabbles between the director and Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein. And then there's the supposed Leo-bender to contend with.

Despite its painful birth, Gangs is seldom less than an impressive piece of filmmaking, a mammoth undertaking that attempts to put a human face on the clashes between immigrant and nativist factions in the halcyon era of Tammany Hall. Holding the line for the "native Americans" is the fearsome Bill "the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), a wickedly mustachioed gang leader whose ruthless control of the streets makes him a kind of hatchet-wielding celebrity. In the elaborately choreographed battle sequence that opens the film, Cutting vanquishes the chieftain (Liam Neeson) of a rival Irish gang, violently dispatching him in front of his young son. After years in orphaned exile, the boy -- now an adult and played by our old pal Leo -- returns to the urban epicenter known as the Five Points and ingratiates himself undetected into Cutting's circle, the better to wreak vengeance from within.

Scorsese's determination to re-create the era the old-fashioned way -- emphasizing real sets over desktop trickery -- is the linchpin of the film's marvelous look. To populate this beautifully conceived environment, he marshals multitudes of extras and even a wayward elephant. (P.T. Barnum, too, had digs in New York.) The wildest animal, however, is Day-Lewis' Cutting, whose terrifying and complex psychopathology warrants a place in the screen villains' hall of fame.

Some of the movie's peripheral characters are comparatively ordinary (Cameron Diaz's role as a pickpocket adds nothing to her reputation), and Scorsese's message is muddled. What I took from the movie was that the New Yorkers of 140 years ago were vicious, xenophobic scumbags, and it's high time we honored them. The main problem, though, is that the main narrative rarely generates the expected heat, and the blame for that failure falls squarely at DiCaprio's feet. His character, Amsterdam Vallon, harbors a nearly operatic thirst for retribution, but there's nothing in the actor's performance that suggests such urgency. Trying to convey bloody-minded determination, he instead looks hopelessly tentative, as if he could be talked out of the entire affair in just a few minutes. In the film's most electrifying moment, Cutting tumbles to Amsterdam's true identity, and the gang leader's mounting fury is indeed a sight to see. But the scene only works so well because of DiCaprio's position in it: laid out flat on a table and saying nothing. That's hardly a good sign.

In "Catch Me If You Can," however, it's Leo who's laying us flat on our backs, slaying us with charm as he impersonates another impostor: real-life con man Frank Abagnale Jr. There is no living actor better equipped to animate Spielberg's conception of Abagnale, who successfully poses as an airline pilot, a top physician and a lawyer while passing millions of dollars' worth of bogus checks. Not bad for a teenager from New Rochelle, N.Y.

Spielberg's note-perfect film ties Abagnale's odyssey of ill-gotten fortune to the shame of watching his luckless father (a moving Christopher Walken) lose everything to the federal government. But what makes the movie resonate with audiences is the skill with which it exploits our all-American appreciation of industrious corner-cutting. Yes!, we whisper in awed encouragement as Abagnale sweet-talks yet another easily led administrative assistant into giving up yet another not-so-closely-guarded set of company procedures. Even the most solid citizens among us have to recognize that our hard-scamming '60s antihero is years ahead of the curve, not waiting for an Enron to teach him that beating the system isn't merely the best way for an average Joe to get ahead -- it's the only way.

Abagnale's activities make him the target of FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks, once again playing winningly against type). Their cat-and-mouse game helps establish the movie as a joyously funny comedy, and that lightness may work to its disadvantage, denying it the respect afforded the director's supposedly more serious works like "Saving Private Ryan." But I'll be damned if the movie didn't keep reminding me of Scorsese's great Goodfellas, which likewise portrayed the rise and half-fall of a charismatic outlaw. Like that film, Catch Me performs the tricky feat of first winning our allegiance in its protagonist's war on the rules, and then subtly altering our point of view until we're ready to accept that war as tragedy. Abagnale, the script argues, had the talent and suss to excel at almost anything, but being a cheat was the best his society could do for him. Not only is the movie a perfectly remembered dose of nostalgia, it's Spielberg's most mature cultural document to date. And DiCaprio's matinee-idol seductiveness is the glue that makes it all work.

So what have we learned, Charlie Brown? That Leonardo DiCaprio is an eminently capable actor, but only in the correct context. That casting is all. And that it's possible for a Steven Spielberg film to rate an unreservedly higher recommendation than a simultaneously released Martin Scorsese film. I never thought I'd say it, either. But to pretend otherwise is to be a complete and utter moron.


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