(CNN)Joseph Heller’s anti-war novel “Catch-22” is set during World War II, but was published just as the US began getting into Vietnam, and the 1970 movie came out in the midst of that conflict. George Clooney brings his considerable star power to bear in bringing the satire to Hulu, but the six-part series feels like less than the sum of its parts.
Strange and at times surreal, the story hinges on Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), a bombardier flying missions over Italy. Surrounded by kill-crazy commanders and eccentric peers, he desperately yearns to escape more missions, pleading with the unit’s doctor (played by Grant Heslov, Clooney’s producing partner) to declare him insane.
Ah, but there’s the catch: Anyone who is sane would want out of Yossarian’s situation. So asking to be spared from the insanity of war merely proves that he’s not.
The profundity of that feels as true now as it did then. Yet the craziness that surrounds Yossarian feels strained and stretched over six episodes, despite the big-name cast that surrounds Abbott, including Clooney as his cuckolded commander (whose wife takes refuge in sleeping with his subordinates); Kyle Chandler as the gung-ho Col. Cathcart, who keeps upping mission counts; as well as Hugh Laurie and Giancarlo Giannini.
“I am gonna toughen you ladies up,” Cathcart snarls, fearing the wrath of his superiors far more than he frets about the lives of his men.
The flight scenes are plenty harrowing, and the gallows humor of the novel and Mike Nichols movie remains very much intact.
The additional length, though, does as much to muddy the narrative as clarify it. What emerges is a miniseries with a decidedly narrow, episodic feel to it — where an inadvertent act of violence or the promotion given a pilot with the unfortunate name Major Major (Lewis Pullman) stand out, but everything else has a way of blurring together.
The marquee names notwithstanding, Abbott has to really carry the project, and he does so admirably under the circumstances. But Yossarian’s weary demeanor doesn’t make for an especially dynamic protagonist.
To his credit, Clooney has always exhibited ambition as a filmmaker, leveraging his movie-star credentials to pursue passion projects, for good and ill. Taking Heller’s story to TV — and a service like Hulu, eager to cash in on his promotional cachet — surely enhanced his creative latitude.
The overall result, however, is a production that’s intriguing but ultimately as thin as it is handsome, and emotionally removed in a way that dilutes the larger impact. For those reasons and perhaps others, unlike its conflicted hero, “Catch-22” never quite takes off.
“Catch-22” premieres May 17 on Hulu.