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Hulu's 'Catch-22' is worth catching

George Clooney must be a little crazy.

Not as crazy as John Yossarian claimed to be in the 453-page Joseph Heller novel “Catch-22” that the late famed director Mike Nichols turned into a two-hour movie in 1970.

But crazy enough to think the cast in a new Hulu version of the satirical antiwar film could compete with the memory of the incredible cast in Nichols’ film.

That included Alan Arkin, Richard Benjamin, Martin Sheen, Martin Balsam, Buck Henry (who also wrote the screenplay), Tony Perkins, Jon Voight, Bob Newhart, Charles Grodin, Orson Welles, Art Garfunkel, Jack Gilford, Bob Balaban and Paula Prentiss.

I’m not one to generally compare remakes to the originals but after watching Hulu’s six-hour version, I did drop $3.99 on Amazon to watch Nichols’ version all over again.

I doubt I will be alone.

You can’t be reminded enough about the absurdity and darkly comic side of war, especially at a time when it looks like another one is possible.

As crazy as it sounds, I enjoyed both film versions for different reasons while still understanding the criticism of Nichols' loosely structured movie that received mixed reviews.

With more than twice as much time – the Hulu version premiering Friday is 4½ hours over the six episodes – there are some significant differences in the storytelling.

Christopher Abbott plays John Yossarian in Hulu's adaptation of Joseph Heller's novel "Catch-22." (Philippe Antonello/Hulu)

Some of the Hulu scenes and dialogue are identical to ones in Nichols’ version but the extra time allows more opportunity to flesh out the characters. In addition, some of the scenes appear at different times than they did in the movie, which makes it somewhat easier to follow.

But perhaps most importantly, Christopher Abbott is a more likable, conniving, morally challenged, philosophical Yossarian than Arkin was in the movie. And Voight is a less-sensitive and less-likable Milo than the actor, Daniel David Stewart, in Hulu's version trying to exploit war by turning it into a money machine.

The Hulu version directed by Clooney and Grant Heslov is pretty much Abbott’s movie. His name might not be recognizable, but Abbott is a highly thought of actor known for his TV roles in “Girls” and “The Sinner” and for movie roles in “The Sleepwalker,” “The First Man” and “James White.”

He does a sympathetic job playing Yoyo, the U.S. Air Force bombardier who thinks war is crazy and repeatedly and unsuccessfully tries to convince a doctor (played by Heslov) that he is, too, to get the heck out of flying missions in Europe during World War II.

Yoyo can’t win. The hilarious Catch-22 is explained about 40 minutes into the opening episode. Basically, you have to ask to be declared crazy to get out of combat and, if you ask, you're considered sane. (The dialogue is much funnier than that explanation.)

Yoyo tries everything, including sabotaging his own plane, and things that put his fellow military men in jeopardy of being killed. But he also has a kind heart and tries to help young men fighting for their lives.

Clooney and Kyle Chandler are aboard as buffoonish military leaders who are behind the insanity of constantly changing the number of missions Yoyo has to fly before he can go home. They also give out awards and promotions to undeserving men for absurd reasons because it is the easy way out of tough situations.

George Clooney plays the training officer in charge of World War II bombardiers in Hulu's adaptation of Joseph Heller's novel, "Catch-22," which begins streaming on Friday. (Hulu/TNS)

Clooney, Chandler and Hugh Laurie (“House”) are the names in the Hulu cast but not the primary attractions. They pretty much chew the scenery in their scenes. Clooney, who has aged to the point that he almost looks as old as his father Nick when he was a briefly a Channel 2 anchor, is only in a handful of scenes after appearing in the opening episode. He usually is yelling.

Chandler has a bigger role as Colonel Cathcart, a bonehead even more broadly played in Nichols’ movie by Clooney’s former father-in-law Martin Balsam. (Trivia alert: Clooney was married to Talia Balsam about a quarter century ago before he became a big star.)

Another star is the musical soundtrack, which sounds like it comes from the era of Clooney’s aunt, Rosemary Clooney.

At a February news conference in Pasadena, Calif., attended by Abbott, Clooney and Chandler, most of the questions were naturally directed at Clooney.

He said the book was required reading in high school when he first read it.

“I loved the style of writing which was different than the kind of writing we had read,” said Clooney. “But I was pretty young, and so I just liked the character, and I thought it was fun. I reread it when we were sent the scripts to do.

“And I hadn’t read it in a long time. So it was really fun and exciting to go back and read and understand why this book lasted and stands the test of time. It was fun.

Clooney said he and Nichols were friends. He added that he didn’t initially want to do the new version until he and Heslov saw the first three scripts.

“It seems ridiculous,” recalled Clooney of their thinking.

After he and Heslov read the scripts, they changed their mind.

“We just loved the scripts,” said Clooney. “I think David (Michod) and Luke (Davies) did an amazing job with sort of unspooling these characters because, when you do a movie … you don’t have enough time to really get to know the characters. And that’s why you do this as a television show, is you get to spend time with the characters like the book does. And they just figured out a way to interpret it in a way that we didn’t think was really possible. So, I think that’s why we got on board, for the most part.”

Davies believes the book and film are relevant today.

George Clooney (left), Christopher Abbott and Pico Alexander co-star in Hulu's series, "Catch-22," based on Joseph Heller's novel. (Hulu/TNS)

“In a specific sense, I think we all wake up every morning these days in this kind of shared global anxiety condition, and this novel is a beautiful distillation of a prophetic distillation of that anxiety condition,” he said. “This is like the origin story of that anxiety condition. And I loved it ever since I was 16, and suddenly there was this thought what if I found a way of cracking the code of that novel, and unraveling it, finding out what the chronology is, and seeing what it’s shape would be in television. I love the film, don’t get me wrong, but the film just re-creates the chaotic kaleidoscopic madness of the novel which is held tightly in a very literary sense by Joseph Heller. What we basically did was unfold the chronology so that all our characters could have actual emotional journeys from beginning to end.”

Clooney added the screenplay also explores Yossarian, “one of the great characters in literature.”

“The interesting thing is it requires us, an audience, to be able to like and trust a character who does some pretty despicable things along the way, and part of that actually came down to casting. We knew we had to cast somebody that you could root for even when he did really rotten things,” said Clooney.

“We really hope that we’ve retained the kaleidoscopic madness of the novel; but, no, the show really flows through Chris’ perspective. Yossarian’s perspective,” said Davies. “It’s the world is in chaos around him, but we honed in on Yossarian’s character. I mean, the novel does do that, too, but the novel jumps all over the place and spends a lot of time on other characters at different times. But there’s barely a single scene in the entire six hours in which Chris is not either in it or very close by implicitly.”

Clooney believes veterans will enjoy the scripts poking fun at military leaders.

“It’s more about the bureaucratization of military and war,” said Clooney. “I think what Heller was doing originally, because he was writing in response to Korea, not to World War II, and it was taken up by the Vietnam generation as it became an antiwar book. But that wasn’t what it was designed to do. It was really to make fun of all of the red tape and the bureaucracy of war and the ridiculousness of it. And so I think that still plays.”


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