Some time after George Clooney’s nostalgic, offbeat dark comedy Suburbicon(2017) flamed out at the box office and critics argued over whether it was merely a smoldering fire hazard or a massive five-alarm dumpster fire, Hulu decided to greenlight Clooney for another nostalgic, offbeat dark comedy. It’s hard to imagine Hulu found comfort in the source material: Joseph Heller’s 1961 picaresque war novel, Catch-22, already the progenitor of one box office disappointment back in 1970. Heller’s book swings madly from absurdism to hyperrealism and plays notes of comedy and tragedy against each other with nimble dexterity, a difficult feat on paper and so far an inimitable challenge for those who have attempted to adapt Heller’s work, Clooney and company included.
Catch-22 would appear a fitting canvas for Clooney and showrunner David Michôd (War Machine) to let their irreverent impulses run wild, but, instead, the mini-series comes across hobbled and tame. The culprit behind all this unwanted strait-lacing is perhaps fellow showrunner Luke Davies, who counts Lion (2016) and Beautiful Boy (2018) among his writing credits. Like his other projects, this adaptation of Catch-22 leans heavily into the drama, but this time it comes at the expense of everything that makes Heller’s classic novel worthwhile. Davies’ even-keeled dramaturgy unruffles all the wrong material. The unruly kinks have been ironed out, but the result is flat, lacking the punch and verve of Heller’s storytelling.
Heller presents war as an insane proposition, masked only by insane rationalizations that themselves beget more insane propositions. To live by these propositions a person must also be insane, so the American soldiers who populate Heller’s fiction are just as insane as the situation they find themselves in.
Clooney & Co. can’t quite reconcile themselves to Heller’s caricature, and they sacrifice wit and satire in their overreach for dramatic realism. They fill their version of Heller’s WWII airbase with plausible men struggling to come to terms with implausible circumstances, and there are few things less funny than watching rational people make peace with irrationality. The rapid-fire retorts and mind-boggling logic that define Heller’s world have been stretched thin with sequences of head-scratching, longwinded explanation.
At the center of all this incredulity is Captain John Yossarian, a man who understands that the logical conclusion to all the military’s illogical policies is him dying on the battlefield, and that’s one proposition he refuses to make sense of. Christopher Abbott, who plays Yossarian, cuts a perfect mid-century all-American boy in the sepia tone postcard moments of the soldiers taking a dip in the sea or enjoying a few magic hour beers, but his comedic flair is lacking and his dramatic range butts up against repetitive material.
Every episode finds Yossarian begging to be discharged until his mission quota gets raised and he’s once again in the nose of a bomber plane taking aim at the next enemy target. His friends call him “Yoyo”: up and down and up and down he goes, mission after mission. Yossarian’s buddies — the colorful panoply of characters that animate Heller’s novel — are given short thrift in the mini-series. Few are fleshed out enough to have any weight, so the simple story of Yossarian’s endless back and forth with military command to be relieved of duty is the sole dramatic tension, and that tension pulls pretty slack over six episodes.
If not for a faithful adaptation of Heller’s work, which this mini-series is not, it seems reasonable to ask, why then do a remake of Catch-22 at all? You could argue that as long as war is in fashion, anti-war art is never irrelevant, but too much of this modern Catch-22 feels like a nostalgia trip rather than a drive at the zeitgeist. The most durable character through the half-century that separates the novel and the series is the weasely mess officer Milo Minderbender (Daniel David Stewart). Like a true Pentagon contractor, Milo sees war as a growth industry. After capitalizing on some initial investments in Scottish lamb chops, he’s soon enough running a multinational syndicate that specializes in arms dealing and oil production, working both sides of the battlefield. Now, that’s a man for our time!