Catch 22, perfectly pretty candyfloss.

Catch 22.

Catch 22 is the new George Clooney project and the lat­est attempt to trans­fer Joseph Heller’s acclaimed nov­el to the screen. Like the Handmaid’s Tale, it’s a co-pro­duc­tion between Hulu and Para­mount and is clear­ly an attempt to repli­cate that show’s success. 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it’s pre­cise­ly when com­pared to some­thing like the Handmaid’s Tale (reviewed by me ear­li­er here) that the core prob­lem with Catch 22 becomes obvious.

Mar­garet Atwood’s futur­is­tic depic­tion of a dystopi­an soci­ety, which she pub­lished in 1985, was ren­dered ter­ri­fy­ing­ly pre­scient after the elec­tion of you know who, in 2016. In con­trast, Heller’s nov­el, which he pub­lished in 1961, clear­ly comes from anoth­er century.

The Hand­maid­’s Tale.

For thou­sands of years, the world was divid­ed into two groups; peas­ants, and the aris­toc­ra­cy. But the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry ush­ered in an age of mer­i­toc­ra­cy. And in this world, you were either an ordi­nary (and still prob­a­bly man­u­al) work­er, or, you were part of a tiny elite, and one of the very few who had an actu­al career. 

This lat­ter group was made up of doc­tors, lawyers, bank man­agers and any­one lucky enough to be part of the gov­ern­ment, the church or the army. These peo­ple were unim­peach­ably hon­est, trust­ed and uni­ver­sal­ly revered. 

Hugh Lau­rie in Catch 22.

So, if you want­ed to know if, say, the har­vest was like­ly to be delayed this year, or whether or not the great pow­ers were going to go to war, you would ask one of these august gen­tle­men (they were all men of course). And what­ev­er they told you, you would take as writ. And you would then plan for the rest of your year accordingly. 

So when Heller’s nov­el came out in ’61, his depic­tion of the army was thrilling­ly sub­ver­sive and gen­uine­ly satir­i­cal. The offi­cers in this army were every bit as venal, pet­ty, dim-wit­ted, thin-skinned and self-cen­tred as the ordi­nary pri­vates forced to car­ry out their orders and to ser­vice their every whim.

Orson Welles in Mike Nichol’s Catch 22.

But by the time Mike Nichols released his film of the nov­el, a mere nine years lat­er, in 1970, that world had been turned on its head. The six­ties had ren­dered pil­lars of soci­ety, fig­ures of author­i­ty and all insti­tu­tions, espe­cial­ly the army, hope­less­ly suspicious. 

Now, half a cen­tu­ry lat­er, the idea that the army, and of all things, the Amer­i­can army, might once have been respect­ed and even revered, rather than the object of ridicule, seems almost lit­er­al­ly unimaginable. 

So when the lat­est Catch 22 depicts a scene in which an army pri­vate on the make tries to sell a truck load of clan­des­tine­ly acquired toma­toes to his supe­ri­or, it doesn’t read like a caus­tic cri­tique of uni­ver­sal val­ues sub­vert­ed by the pur­suit of per­son prof­it, and the sac­ri­fice of ideals at the altar to cap­i­tal­ism. It just looks like a young guy sell­ing a slight­ly old­er guy a few crates of tomatoes. 

George Clooney in Catch 22.

It all looks sump­tu­ous, and the act­ing is uni­form­ly superb. And, as won­der­ful as it is to see Gian­car­lo Gian­ni­ni giv­en some­thing grown-up to do, against the back­drop of a pris­tine and Aca­di­an south­ern Italy, it lacks any real sub­stance. As Gertrude Stein said so mem­o­rably of Cal­i­for­nia, “there’s no there, there “.

You can see the trail­er to Catch 22 here

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