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Posted by martinteller on April 28, 2013

Despite the fact that Mike Nichols’s first two films — The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — are both in my top 100, I’ve avoided his third film for a long time because it doesn’t have a very good reputation.  You can find positive reviews of it around, very positive ones.  But they seem to be overwhelmingly from people who haven’t read the book.  Those who have read Heller’s novel seem to hate the movie, or at least find it to be lacking in comparison.

This is the part of the review where I do my usual shameful confession that I have not read the book.  I am not of the belief that you need to read the source material before seeing an adaptation (obviously, or I wouldn’t have done it so many damn times).  But I am also not of the belief that it’s somehow not fair or not valid to compare the two.  There is no objective viewpoint on a movie… those who are familiar with the book will have a different experience than those who aren’t.  That’s just how it is.  You can tell yourself that you’ve cleared your mind of any prior associations before watching the movie so you can judge it “objectively”, but I think you’re fooling yourself.  Everything that’s happened to you, everything you know and feel, shapes your perception of the experiences that follow.

So I respect the opinions of those who have read “Catch-22” and that soured their opinion of a film which by necessity discards huge portions of the book, including entire characters.  A film that, perhaps due to Nichols’s direction or Buck Henry’s screenplay or both, does not capture the tone of a literary work they know and love.  I also respect those who for whatever reason love both the book and the film.  As for myself, I can say that I enjoyed the movie for the most part, and it also made me want to read the book and find out what I’m missing.

Because the film is a funny (or “amusing” if you want to make a distinction… can’t say I ever laughed out loud) satire, pointing out the absurd logic that is used to justify any action, particularly in times of war.  But it does feel like things are missing.  Certain scenes seem to come out of nowhere.  With the exception of Yossarian, there’s barely a well-realized character in the bunch.  On one hand, this suits the comic madness of the material… in the proper context, caricature is perfectly acceptable.  However, one can imagine that in the form of a novel, which has an inherently different sense of pacing, these events and characters would be more significant, satisfying and resonant.  That is to say, I think the movie mostly works on its own terms but when it doesn’t work, I sympathize with Heller’s fans.

What an awesome cast, though.  Alan Arkin, Martin Balsam, Buck Henry, Jon Voight, Richard Benjamin, Anthony Perkins, Charles Grodin, Bob Balaban, Orson Welles, Art Garfunkel, Bob Newhart, Norman Fell, Martin Sheen, Jack Gilford.  Because the center is (almost) always Yossarian, it doesn’t feel like a “let’s throw a bunch of stars at the audience” move, but simply great casting of characters.  It’s a delight to see these folks because they have such distinctive presences.  And again, it’s perhaps a failure of the translation from page to screen that I wish could have seen more of some of them.

I did enjoy the film and it pulls off some tricky tonal shifts.  Maybe the best thing I can say about it is that it’s made me look forward to reading the novel.  Rating: Good (75)


4 Responses to “Catch-22”

  1. Brad said

    Just throwing it out there but Catch-22 is probably in my Top 10 novels that I’ve read. I haven’t seen the film but the novel is a lot of fun and a great work of tragicomedy. Every character gets their own chapter although Yossarian is the central figure, so even the most minor characters get some decent degree of characterization. Hopefully you like it, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts whenever you get around to it.

    • Yeah I’m a slow reader and I’m enjoying a true crime binge at the moment so I don’t know when I’ll get around to it. It’s definitely on my to-do list, though.

  2. JamDenTel said

    I haven’t read the book either (I know, I know), but I really dug the movie. I thought it pulled off the patchwork narrative really well and that the acting was superb. I guess, at the time at least, that was enough for me.

    • I wouldn’t say the acting is superb. I’d say Alan Arkin was superb. The others don’t get a chance to act that much (maybe Garfunkel). But they do a good job of crafting quirky, oddball characters.

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