Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Catch 22

Mike Nichols is a gifted director with a flare for filming great dialogue, as best seen in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Closer.  Joseph Heller's Catch-22 is a novel that is brimming with witty dialogue, absurd logic, and has a complex tangle of plot threads.  If anyone could do justice to it on the big screen, Mike Nichols was the man.  At least, that would make sense.  But, as the titular catch in the book indicates, following logic doesn't necessarily get the results you want.

Catch-22 is the story of Yossarian (Alan Arkin), a bombardier in the US Air Force during World War II.  Yossarian comes to the conclusion that he does not want to be in the Air Force any more.  Why?  Because, when he flies his missions over Italy, people keep trying to kill him and eventually will succeed.  His commanding officer, Col. Cathcart (Martin Balsam), keeps raising the required number of flight missions for his men, eventually more than tripling the average number of flights the Air Force requires before rotating experienced pilots out for rest.  The only way out of the Air Force, then, is to die or be declared insane.  Unfortunately, the unit doctor can't help because the Air Force has established rules for determining sanity.  Since only a crazy person would want to keep flying dangerous missions, wanting to get out of the Air Force is sane, but you can't leave the Air Force unless you're insane, but if you're insane you will want to stay in the Air Force and keep flying dangerous missions, etc.  The official description for that circular logic is Catch-22.  The unspoken question is how anyone can escape that logic.

There's more to the movie than that, of course.  Military leaders are shown to be inept, corrupt, and stupid.  Bob Newhart plays Major Major Major Major, who doesn't know what to do as a Major, so he hides and avoids his duties at all times; when he's in the office, no one can see him --- they can only see him when he has left the office.  That's his catch.  Col. Cathcart not only keeps his pilots in the flight rotation far too long, but he and Major Danby (Richard Benjamin) are involved in selling military goods for profit.  Orson Welles makes a brief appearance as General Dreedle, who doesn't understand why he cannot have a subordinate shot for annoying him.

Yossarian's fellow soldiers are similarly bizarre.  Charles Grodin plays a very mild man who eventually fails to see the difference between killing in combat and murder, and isn't distressed by either.  Art Garfunkel embodies the stereotypical movie image of an American soldier: brave, honest, faithful, and very naive.  Martin Sheen's character seems pretty realistic, but the irrationality of war begins to affect him.  Jon Voight plays Milo, who works in the mess hall.  From there, Milo builds up a trading empire, swapping equipment (like parachutes) for better food or for art or money or whatever.  Milo is so effective that he and his superiors, Danby and Cathcart, end up allowing the Italians to bomb their base to make a profit.  All the while, Yossarian becomes more and more neurotic.  He tries to crazy his way out of the Air Force by walking around nude.  He tries to do do it by insulting his officers.  Nothing ever works, though.  In fact, the only man crazier than Yossarian is his buddy, Captain Orr, who has such a talent for getting shot down and splash landing in the ocean, that he claims to just be practicing.

That kind of sums up my feelings for this movie.  There's a lot going on, but nothing really works.  I liked a lot of the performances, especially Charles Grodin and Anthony Perkins (who plays a chaplain), but the movie never really gels.  The glaring problem is with the story.  I haven't read Heller's novel in years, so I'm not upset that they chose to significantly change the story (entire plot threads were dropped, characters swapped speeches, etc.).  I am upset that they chose to change the story so poorly.  Buck Henry (who also plays Lt. Col. Korn) is a talented writer, the creator of Get Smart and the screenwriter for The Graduate.  On paper, he seems like a good choice to simplify Heller's complex story, but the result is a disjointed mess.  The movie ends up breaking into three distinct parts.  The first part is goofy and randomly funny.  I liked that part.  The second part is serious and overwrought.  The third part is an out of left field ending.  I guess that could also be the story arc for The Graduate, too, but it's more disturbing here.  My problem is with the second arc.  I get it.  War is hell.  What I don't get is why it became so hellish after being absurd for the first 45 minutes of the movie.  It would have been much more effective if the crazy decisions made by characters in the first third of the movie directly lead to the serious events; that would have allowed us to see the two parts as connected and contrasting.  Instead, it seems fairly abrupt and random.

Mike Nichols shoulders a lot of the blame for the feel of this movie.  The sound is intentionally obscured at times, with characters having witty conversations while a jet engine obscures what they are saying.  That's just annoying, unless there's a punchline or some symbolism that is being hammered home.  There doesn't seem to be.  I liked Alan Arkin's performance, but I disagreed with the direction; if the whole point of the movie is that Yossarian is the sane guy, he should not act increasingly neurotic.  That's a pretty basic failure on both Nichols' and Arkin's part.  Both the book and the movie jump around in time, but the book does so in a cyclical fashion, elaborating on scenes with different perspectives.  Here, only one particularly sad scene gets replayed, but it happens over and over again.  Nichols' golden touch for dialogue remains strong as ever, with every character having several funny lines with impeccable timing, but that's only important in the funny first third of the film.  After that, we are left with some pretty soul-sucking stuff, and it doesn't have the impact that I'm sure Nichols intended.

This should have been a great movie.  It has the director, the screenwriter, the source material, and the actors needed to make a classic.  What resulted was far less than the sum of its parts.  It's not terrible, but it should be great.  The repetitious scene is a great illustration for what is wrong with the movie.  Perspective is key to this story, right?  What is logical to one person is illogical to the next.  Therefore, it would be both interesting and potentially funny to see the same scene from different characters' viewpoints.  Instead of using this cinematic tool to enlighten and amuse, though, Nichols chooses to club the audience with the notion of war being bad.  This movie is witty and fast-paced, but it's not enough.  Maybe Nichols and Henry should have taken a more literal inspiration from the source material and had the script follow a circular path.  I absolutely believe that Catch-22 can be made into a great film, but this definitely isn't it.

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