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'Catch-22' review: Good-looking production lacks contemporary relevance, urgency

Christopher Abbott stars as Yossarian in Hulu's "Catch-22.

Christopher Abbott stars as Yossarian in Hulu's "Catch-22. Photo Credit: Hulu/Philipe Antonello

SERIES "Catch-22"

WHEN|WHERE Streaming on Hulu


 

WHAT IT'S ABOUT After Yossarian (Christopher Abbott, "Girls") completes boot camp — under blustery overseer Scheisskopf (George Clooney) — he's shipped to the island of Pianosa, off the Italian mainland, where he joins the 256th squadron of the U.S. Army Air Forces, as bombardier of a B-25 that makes runs (and then more runs) over enemy-held territory. Yossarian's crewmates, like Aarfy (Rafi Gavron) and Kid Sampson (Gerran Howell) are resigned to the capricious, petty cruelties of the base commanding officer, Col. Cathcart (Kyle Chandler), but Yossarian constantly devises ruses to get out of the next bombing run. Each backfires, including one that unintentionally lands another officer, Maj. de Coverley (Hugh Laurie) in enemy hands. Worse, Cathcart continually boosts the number of bombing runs each crew must fly. To unwind, they occasionally head to a local brothel, run by Marcello — Giancarlo Giannini, in his first English-language TV series since 2000's "Dune."

Clooney — one of the producers — also directs two of the six episodes.

This adaptation, the third, is based on the Joseph Heller novel, published in 1961, drawn in part on his World War II experiences as a B-25 bombardier with the 488th Bombardment Squadron during the Italian campaign.

MY SAY The novel "Catch-22" had two important lives, the first as a takedown of Cold War McCarthyism, the second as an indictment of the war in Vietnam. And important indeed: One book, along with a few seminal others, would effectively set the ground rules for how we should think, react and rage about a world out of control, or at least beyond our immediate control. "Catch-22" — the phrase — long ago entered the language and is now too-generously applied to everything, from a president in the White House to the Mets' ongoing pitching woes.

Is there a third life? Maybe, some day, but maybe just not right now. We're already living through irony-rich times, and on the flip side of "Catch-22," of a world gone far madder than Heller could have even imagined. This six-parter would almost seem to concede the point, and instead of forcing a crash course in 2019 relevancy, heads off in the opposite direction. As the lush soundtrack of the 1940s rolls by, along with all the nicely drawn period details, this "Catch-22" is at times a nostalgia trip, and at others a World War II epic. Neither was exactly Heller's intention.

The screenwriters Luke Davies and David Michôd have also extracted a linear storyline from Heller's famously nonlinear one. There's a beginning, middle and end. Yossarian's efforts to get out of the next bombing run invariably turn on him, leading to more bombing runs. One run over that gently rolling Italian countryside follows the next, as the sky fills with black flak cotton-ball puffs, and Yossarian trains his bombsight on the next target. He averts death, if not quite injury. Most of his crewmates are not so lucky …

War is hell, but also a little bit repetitive.

Meanwhile, we get Clooney in his first TV series in a couple of decades, but not quite enough of Clooney. He's memorable in his few brief moments as bumptious blowhard Scheisskopf, then disappears for whole episodes at a time. (He appears, again briefly, in the final two.)

That leaves "Catch-22" squarely on the overburdened shoulders of Abbott, who is in almost every scene and through whom a cruel war and bitter fate (most notably the idiotic COs who make it so much worse) is refracted. His performance is good, just not quite dazzling — consistent with the rest of "Catch-22." His Yossarian — who spends much of the last hour naked, as Yossarian must — growls his way through the war, or as his pilot, McWatt (Jon Rudnitsky), crisply explains their Catch-22, "Me? Happy, happy, happy, dead. You? Worry, worry, worry, dead." That about sums it up.

BOTTOM LINE Good (and good-looking) production, but without contemporary relevance, urgency or edge.

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