Joseph Heller’s WWII satire Catch-22 — about an average guy trying to keep out of harm’s way in the face of an increasingly unstable insanitarian regime — is both timeless and timely. It’s also a novel that’s thick with feeling — hilarious surprise, profound anguish, relentless confusion. While Hulu’s six-episode adaptation — exec produced by George Clooney and shot on location in Italy — is absolutely gorgeous to look at, its heart is AWOL. It’s ultimately a triumph of streamer-budget aesthetics over emotion.
Christopher Abbott (Girls) stars as John Yossarian, a WWII bombardier who just wants to fly his allotted number of missions and go home alive, but the maddeningly circular bureaucracy of the United States military keeps conspiring against him. And of course, there is the titular catch, which Doc Daneeka (Grant Heslov) explains to Yossarian in a briskly absurd discussion about an unstable soldier, Orr (Graham Patrick Martin): “Orr’s crazy, and therefore he can get out of flying combat missions. All he has to do is ask. But as soon as he asks, he’s no longer crazy, so he has to fly more missions.” Further complicating Yossarian’s life is Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler), whose myopic focus on executing the military’s purpose prompts him to raise the mission count with exasperating predictability.
If you read the book in high school this probably all sounds pretty familiar; Hulu’s Catch-22 is a largely faithful adaptation that preserves a substantial amount Heller’s brilliantly elliptical prose. Abbott brings a disarming vulnerability to his performance as the pragmatically selfish Yossarian, while David Daniel Stewart is a lively standout as the fast-talking mess hall magnate Milo Minderbinder. It’s Chandler, though, who truly embodies the chaotic spirit of Heller’s material with his masterfully apoplectic turn as Cathcart. Whether attempting to inspire or humiliate his men with public displays of volume, Chandler delivers every line with a fierce commitment to force-of-nature bluster. (I may have gone back and watched him bellow “It’s goddamn yummy!” — a reaction to Milo’s baked Alaska — several times.)
Clooney was originally supposed to play Cathcart, but time constraints ultimately led him to take a smaller role, as the parade-obsessed General Scheisskopf. In this handsome-actor tradeoff, everyone wins. And boy, there is so much to dazzle the eyes in Catch-22, from the soaring aerial shots of the Mediterranean Sea to the intensely attractive ensemble of Yossarian’s fellow soldiers. (My God, the matinee idol profiles on this cast!) Everything is art-directed to exquisite perfection, from the neatly-stenciled crates of salami stacked behind Cathcart’s desk to the luminous flashbacks of Yossarian’s clandestine dalliances with Scheisskopf’s bombshell wife (Julie Ann Emery). Perhaps that’s why Catch-22 ends up being something to admire rather than enjoy with any depth of feeling. Too often the funny moments evoke an appreciative nod — “Hm, that’s funny” — rather than actual laughter. Too often what unfolds onscreen is beautiful to the point of chilly; TV as very expensive diorama.
Fortunately for all involved, even a somewhat muted rendering of Catch-22 contains enough residual brilliance to remind us what a thrill Heller’s novel provides. The first thing I did after finishing all six episodes was scour the bookshelf in my living room for the tattered blue paperback I’ve had since college. A big-budget TV show that inspires viewers to read, like, an actual book? That’s an irony Joseph Heller would likely appreciate. B