Review: From George Clooney and Hulu, Catch-22, With a Catch

 nytimes.com  05/17/2019 19:15:22   Mike Hale
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From left, George Clooney as Scheisskopf, Christopher Abbott as Yossarian and Pico Alexander as Clevinger in “Catch-22.”CreditCreditPhilippe Antonello/Hulu

An attack on Catch-22 is the kind of ultrahazardous mission for which no combat bonus could suffice. Joseph Hellers 1961 novel toys with time, hopscotches among a huge cast of vividly defined characters and oscillates like an excited particle between Marx Brothers-level comedy and airborne battle scenes worthy of Hemingway. Adapting it for the screen is not for the fainthearted.

Mike Nichols took the challenge head-on, and while his epic 1970 film version fell short of the target, it was a brave effort.

The makers of the new Hulu mini-series Catch-22, which began streaming on Friday, take a different approach. Like Hellers protagonist John Yossarian when faced with the insanity of war, they respond to the crazy ambition of Hellers novel by choosing not to engage.

The peculiar achievement of the writers, Luke Davies and David Mich�d, and of George Clooney  who directed two of six episodes, is an executive producer and stars as the parade-obsessed officer Scheisskopf  is to take a daring, brilliantly observed synthesis of farce and outrage and turn it into a conventional, mostly laugh-free war story whose dominant notes are nostalgia, sentimentality and a resigned chagrin. Adapting a classic treatment of the irrationality of the military mind, they work assiduously to ensure that everything makes sense.

If you arent particularly attached to the book, and if you have a taste for World War II melodramas with lots of big-band music on the soundtrack, then this Catch-22 may suit you fine. Largely shot on Italian locations, in an umber Mediterranean palette, it has a burnished, prestige-film handsomeness. (Martin Ruhe was the director of photography, and another distinguished cinematographer, Ellen Kuras, directed two episodes.)

The direction is straightforward and understated; Grant Heslov (who also appears as Doc Daneeka) took on the bum assignment of directing Yossarians nighttime odyssey through the streets of Rome, and he did a better job of restraining his inner Fellini than Nichols did. Clooney is fun to watch as the bullheaded Scheisskopf, and a few other performers manage to make an impression, like Daniel David Stewart as the uber-capitalist mess sergeant Milo Minderbinder and Graham Patrick Martin as the resourceful pilot Orr.

Most of the cast, though  including Christopher Abbott as Yossarian and top-notch actors like Kyle Chandler (Colonel Cathcart) and Hugh Laurie (Major de Coverley)  cant overcome the dullness of the screenplay, with its very un-Hellerian tendency to moralize.

The most obvious change Davies and Mich�d made was to take apart Hellers collagelike text and refashion it as a chronological narrative, beginning (after a very brief flash-forward opening) with flight training in California and then moving to the Army Air Forces base on the Italian island Pianosa, where selected incidents from the book are forced into a sequence. (Even at four and a half hours of screen time, much of the novels action has been jettisoned.) The focus of the plot is distilled to Yossarians continually frustrated effort to log enough bombing missions to be sent home, tracked by onscreen totals.

Its an understandable choice  recreating the third-person consciousness that holds together the manifold threads of the novel, woven over seven years of writing and rewriting by Heller, would have challenged Robert Altman (whose M*A*S*H was the critical and commercial hit Nicholss Catch-22 wasnt).

But the novel kept you hooked through repeating motifs of image and language, and the bare bones of its plot arent that compelling on their own. And Davies and Mich�ds choices have the effect of diminishing Yossarian.

They hold back Snowden, the character who in the novel triggers Yossarians rebellion against military authority, until the sixth episode, presumably to provide a crescendo to the story. The result is that for most of the series, Yossarian just seems petulant and whiny  instead of living inside his breakdown, as you do in the book, you wait for it to finally arrive.

Throughout the series, the changes and interpolations are in the direction of unnecessary exposition and sentimental clich�. The deaths of Kid Sampson and McWatt, shocking in the novel because of the distance from which theyre seen, are up close and bloody onscreen and correspondingly prosaic; in the age of cancel culture, the series chooses to cancel the horrifying randomness of the book.

It also greatly de-emphasizes the role of the Roman prostitutes who are a strong presence in the book, and even turns one enthusiastic wannabe hooker into a simple street vendor. On the other hand, it expands the depiction of the pilot Aarfys rape and murder of a prostitute so that he can be shown to be coldly predatory, now most likely a requirement for the scenes inclusion.

The result is that nearly all of Hellers humor, in both its corrosively satirical and impishly vaudevillian modes, is lost. (Some new scenes, like the suturing of Yossarians scrotum by a country doctor, go for easy laughs.) Without it, the antiwar and anti-authoritarian themes dont register with any real force. Apparently the Catch-22 of Catch-22 is that to put it onscreen, you have to eviscerate it.

Catch-22
Streaming on Hulu

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