It: Chapter 2

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/05/19 05:12:52

"Tears (And Rips And Bites) Of A Clown"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

There is a running joke throughout “It Chapter Two” in which virtually everyone that wildly successful author Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) encounters—ranging from childhood friends to his actress wife to the director making a major movie out of one of them (played by Peter Bogdanovich, making that possibly the most fantastical and unbelievable detail in the entire film)—tells him that they love his stories but think that he is not particularly good when it comes to endings. This element was presumably conceived as a winking nod to genre fans who have seen so many horror movies over the years that have expertly drawn viewers into their stories over the years but have let them down when it comes to wrapping those tales up. Unfortunately, just because it—or “It Chapter Two, as the case may be—is able to diagnose that affliction does not make it immune to it and as a result, this continuation of the epic-length screen adaptation of Stephen King’s mammoth-sized 1986 bestseller winds up succumbing to that very same problem. Having effectively lured moviegoers in—the first installment, released in 2017, went on to become the highest-grossing (no pun intended) horror film of all time—the filmmakers have no clear or coherent idea of how to wrap things up and take so long (170 minutes) to do so that even fans of the first film may find themselves coming out of this one feeling exhaustion rather than terror.

The story, as you will recall, is set in the town of Derry, Maine, a seemingly bucolic burg with a dark history that includes a higher number than normal of children who mysteriously vanish and some kind of violent and cataclysmic event that occurs every 28 years or so. As it turns out, the town is the victim of a malevolent entity that can transform itself into a representation of the greatest terrors of its victims in order to better feed on their fears—the favored form being that of a monstrous circus clown by the name of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). In the first part, set in 1989, young Bill (Jaeden Martell), guilt-ridden over Pennywise murdering his younger brother after he elected to not go out and play with him one rainy afternoon, went off to find and kill the monster with the help of his friends, motormouth Richie (Finn Wolfhard), sickly Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), perpetually nervous Stan (Wyatt Oleff), portly new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), crush-inspiring tomboy Beverly (Sophia Lillis) and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), whom joins the others when they rescue him from an attack by the town’s other terror, bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton). Over the course of one long summer, the kids found themselves confronting their fears and battling Pennywise in his underground lair, seemingly defeating him, before eventually going their separate ways, swearing to return to finish the job if there is any indication that the evil has returned.

As “Chapter Two” opens, it is 2016 and it quickly becomes apparent that Pennywise is back and nastier than ever. Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the only one of the group who never left Derry, begins making calls to the others to bring them back. We learn that Richie (Bill Hader) is now a successful comedian, Ben (Jay Ryan) dropped a lot of weight and is now a study architect, Eddie (James Ransone) is a risk management analyst who has essentially married the reincarnation of his infamously overbearing mother, Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is a successful designer trapped in an abusive marriage and Stan (Andy Bean) is as fearful as ever. Upon receiving Mike’s call, they all feel a sense of overwhelming fear (with Stan taking it to extremes) but as the memories of their Derry days have all but faded away, they aren’t exactly sure of what they are afraid of. When the old gang reunites in Derry, they find their memories slowly beginning to return but when Mike, who never left and therefore recalls everything, reminds them of their vow, they are less than enthusiastic about facing certain death once again. Nevertheless, they eventually agree to stick around and each one goes off on their own to revisit old haunts, find important artifacts of their pasts to utilize in the all-important ritual to hopefully destroy Pennywise once and for all. When not chomping on local kids, Pennywise continues to bedevil his former rivals and even springs the now-crazed Henry (Teach Grant) from the local asylum to help him kill them off.

Although it was nice to see that it remained a decidedly R-rated excursion in the horror genre from a major studio, the first installment of “It” had a couple of major flaws that prevented it from becoming the horror classic that it was clearly aiming to be. The one that couldn’t be helped is that while the earlier 1990 TV adaptation of the book was otherwise lackluster, the performance by Tim Curry as Pennywise was so indelible that Skarsgard’s turn, although perfectly fine, simply could not help but pale in comparison. The bigger problem is that while the book wove the two timelines together and joined the past and present in ways that demonstrated some of King’s very best writing to date, the film elected to only tell the 1989 narrative, saving the current-day timeline for the sequel. Again, this wasn’t necessarily a bad idea in theory but it didn’t quite work in practice—instead of serving as the sort of grand summation of the horror genre that King produced on the page, the film wound up feeling too much at times like “Goonies” with a higher body count. The movie also had so much material that it tried to jam in that even though it clocked in at a healthy 135 minutes, it still felt weirdly rushed at times. Still, that first film had a number of enormously effective moments—the opening scene between Pennywise and Bill’s little brother was an instant genre classic—and the interplay between the young actors was strong and convincing.

This time around, however, director Andy Muschietti never quite seems to have a convincing grasp on the material this time around. For the most part, the adult versions of the main characters are just not quite as interesting as their younger iterations, which becomes undeniably clear when the film finally elects to go back and forth between the two timelines in order to show previously unseen developments involving the kids that prove to be of importance this time around. Unfortunately, Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman can’t quite find a proper through line with the resulting script feeling more like a checklist of events rather than a proper and fluid narrative. (The Bowers stuff, for example, is handled in such a perfunctory manner that it probably could have been dumped without making a difference. Another problem is that this part of the film has been wildly overscaled in terms of its production—all the various horror set pieces have been lavishly produced but with only a couple of exceptions (the best of which being a visit to a Chinese restaurant that gets very gruesome), they all feel like empty exercises in elaborate effects work that never come close to touching deep-set fears in the way that King did on the page. The bigger problem is that there are so many of these sequences that the film increasingly repetitive as it goes on and by the time it finally, mercifully ends, the climactic battle between good and ultimate evil only inspires shrugs. While I am happy to see a studio making such a considerable investment in a R-rated horror film instead of trying to take the cheap way out, the sheer scale of the enterprise overwhelms the characters that we are supposed to be caring about at that point. (One bit, which pays extremely explicit homage to another horror classic, is so overblown that it proves to be a showstopper in the worst sense of the word.)

That said, “It Chapter Two,” while ultimately a bit of a mess, does have some compensating factors for the avalanche of people who will turn out to see it. The cast of younger actors is still pretty wonderful and many of the most genuinely affecting moments on display succeed because of their efforts. The casting of the older actors is unusually believable this time around—you can actually believe that they resemble what the kids might look like nearly three decades later. The adult performances are all fine but Bill Hader basically steals the movie as the adult Richie—he not only nails pretty much every one of his laugh lines but scores in his more dramatic moments as well. And yes, there are some moments here and there—the aforementioned Chinese restaurant sequence being the best example—that work so well that you can’t help but feel a little disappointed that the rest of the film doesn’t live up to them.

Then again, maybe “It” is a story that is best left on the page after all. When the miniseries turned out to be middling at best, it could be rationalized that it suffered from the limitations of 1990-era television standards. Fair enough but even this big screen version, clocking in at over five hours and with countless millions of dollars behind it, still, despite its overstuffed nature, still feels like an overly stripped-down work that is missing all of the bits in the book that did not necessarily push the main narrative forward but which helped add to the backstory in ways that helped to better inform it. That book remains one of the peaks in the King canon and it is one that I love to revisit from time to time despite its massive length. This film version, on the other hand, is a lot like its central creature when it adopts one of its many disguises—it may look like the book and it may sound, at least in the broad strokes, like the book but there is something odd and ultimately heartless about it that causes it to eventually reveal itself as a mere simulacrum that ultimately proves to be too big and weighty for its own good. Oh well, maybe in another 28 years or so, someone else can give it another shot.

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