Written by: Gary Dauberman (screenplay), Stephen King (novel)
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Starring: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, and Bill Hader
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďFor 27 years, I dreamt of you. I craved you... I've missed you!"
Immensity defines Stephen Kingís It, not only because itís a sprawling epic that spans time and space but because itís a book that weighs on you. Kingís prose unravels with the gradual inevitability of Sisyphusís rock rolling back down the hill: incidents and lines of dialogue repeat, haunting characters and readers alike as they plunge into the darkest, most disturbing corners of the authorís imagination. For the most part, It is not a pleasant book because it intends to crush you under the weight of trauma, regret, and memory. Reading it is sometimes akin to recalling your worst nightmare, only to discover it was no dream at all.
Capturing that in any adaptation is always going to be a tricky proposition, whether it comes in the form of a 190-minute mini-series or a pair of feature films. With his second chapter, Andy Muschietti takes an admirable stab at trying to capture the breadth of Kingís novel, at least. Clocking in at nearly 3 hours, it at least feels like an epic in its attempt to bring the novelís crisscrossing structure to the screen; just as the novel is a lot of book, this adaptation is a lot of movie, and it leaves you sufficiently exhausted. Iím not sure it does so in the same way as the novel, however, as the length is a smokescreen concealing how weightless this film often is.
Only occasionally does it grasp the gravity that makes Kingís novel so indelible, largely because Muschiettiís funhouse routine undercuts the storyís genuine nastiness. Rather than crafting a grave, sobering comedown from the first filmís thrills, Muschietti has largely opted to simply send you barreling down the funhouse once again, this time with a reloaded bag of tricks that transforms Kingís twisted, anti-nostalgic tale into a rousing victory lap. Itís weirdly faithful and unfaithful all at once, all while remaining compulsively watchable; as I watched it, I found myself constantly nitpicking and nagging at my own brain, only to completely give myself over to it. Itís an easy movie to like, which is weirdly kind of a problem considering the source material.
Gary Daubermanís script begins auspiciously enough by tackling the novelís Adrian Mellon episode head-on. As they did in the novel, Mellon (Xavier Dolan) and his boyfriend Don Hagarty (Taylor Frey) incite the wrath of a trio of homophobic dirtbags at the Derry town carnival. Not content to simply hurl slurs at the couple, the thugs beat the couple to a pulp, then toss Adrian into the townís canal, where he drifts downstream until something fishes him out and devours him. We recognize it as Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill SkarsgŚrd), here revived after 27 years of stony sleep; Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), now the townís obsessed, workaholic librarian surveys the crime scene and recognizes the fiendís handiwork. Recalling the pact he and his friends made as children, he calls the Losers Club back to Derry to fulfill its destiny with one final showdown with It.
The opening scene isnít just among the best this entry has to offer; itís among the best of both films, largely because it stands in stark contrast to Chapter Oneís relatively breezy thrill ride approach. Itís dark, bleak, brutal, and, most importantly, ugly before Pennywise appears, crucially reminding the audience that Derry itself is infected with the real-world horrors of bigotry, abuse, and neglect. Itís enough to convince you that Muschietti and company understand that Chapter Two is supposed to be the more complex, adult B-side to the first film, which feels destined to become a sleepover classic for generations to come. If Iím being honest, Chapter Two should have no business being anywhere near sleepovers; Muschietti, however, seems to disagree because he struggles to maintain the oppressively somber, shocking tone of the opening scene and eventually relapses into delivering the same sort of outlandish, loud thrills from the first movie.
The relapse doesnít happen immediately because Muschietti does handle both Stan Urisís heartbreaking fate and the Losersí reunion delicately enough. Mustafa is critical here, as his manic performance effectively conveys how the weight of the intervening 27 years instantly floods over he and his friends. Each of his co-stars manage to capture the gripping panic found on Kingís pages as the Losers grapple with long-suppressed memories. Each of them gives the impression that theyíve been haunted without quite knowing it, a notion that Kingís prose dwells upon. Itís a testament to these performances that theyíre able to do so without the benefit of the internal monologues that bring these characters to life on the page. Despite the obvious change in actors, thereís the sense that these are the same Losers from the previous film, and the castís chemistry is immediately evident.
In one of the storyís few warm, relatively happy scenes, the Losers meet up at the Jade of the Orient to swap stories and catch each other up to speed. Unbeknownst to them, the grim specter of the absent Stanís death looms over it all, lending an unsettling, melancholy quality to the exchange thatís straight out of the novel. Constant Readers will especially recognize this as a rare glimmer amidst the darkness that is It, and even this is soon snuffed out when Pennywise makes his presence known once the fortune cookies arrive at the table. Unfortunately, this is also the moment when it becomes clear that the restraint on display during the early-going will not be the norm for Chapter Two after all. Itís not that gross things spill out of the fortune cookies (thatís to be expected); rather, itís the overdone tenor of it all that signals that Muschietti is still mostly interested in exploiting Kingís novel for loud, overcooked shrieks instead of the more subtle, emotionally resonant horror that truly defines this tale.
This only becomes more clear when the script repurposes Kingís ďwalking toursĒ section of the novel to almost explicitly reprise the original film. Like their on-page counterparts, Muschiettiís Losers must trek through Derry and dig up both buried remnants and long-suppressed memories from their childhood. The script brilliantly exploits the unseen corners from that Summer of í89, particularly the weeks when the Losers separated after coming to blows following Eddieís accident. The audience is treated to previously unseen moments via flashbacks, wherein some of the Losers recall their individual encounters with It during that summer. Someónamely Bill (James McAvoy, who is suitable enough) and Bev (Jessica Chastain, who is fine in an oddly small role)ómust retrace their steps back to the most traumatic sites of their childhood. Not only does this cleverly recapture the interlocking structure of Kingís novel, but it has the welcome effect of letting the audience spend more time with the first filmís charming cast.
Less brilliant, however, is the execution of this stretch in the film. Not only does it sport some dodgy CGI effects to de-age the younger cast, but it also features a mixed bag of scares thanks to Muschiettiís relentless approach. For every genuinely unsettling, resonant, and quietly disturbing moment, thereís unnecessarily jarring CGI outbursts, on-the-nose jolts, and even one of the most nonsensical needle-drops in recent memory. In many ways, this stretch functions less as a rumination on trauma and more like a victory lap that allows Muschietti to give the audience more of the same from the previous film. While the notion nicely rectifies the first filmís linear structure, it rarely informs the events of either chapter in any meaningful way. If not for the CGI de-aging, youíd be forgiven for assuming that the flashbacks were scraps from Chapter Oneís cutting room floor, here gratuitously pasted in as an awkward sort of Greatest Hits reprisal. Sure, itís nice to hear these familiar tunes, but they largely have the effect of simply being nostalgic retreads.
That, of course, is largely the antithesis of Kingís novel, which is starkly anti-nostalgic in the way it finds a dark underbelly to rose-tinted Americana. You wonít find much of that here, and itís a shame because the setup is here for Chapter Two to cleverly subvert expectations with some genuinely frightening, low-key scares that could act as grim, fucked-up counterparts to the spook-a-blast thrills from the first picture. Instead, itís just that stuff regurgitated ad nauseam. Even the most effective bitsólike Bev meeting Pennywise in the guise of an elderly woman at her childhood home and Richieís recollection of a childhood encounter with bullies and a subsequent episode involving the townís Paul Bunyan statueóare accented with unnecessary, in-your-face jolts. Itís almost as if Muschietti doesnít trust himself to simply lean on the solid imagery on the page: everything has to bludgeon the audienceís senses to the point where even the most imaginative imagery loses their power. Ultimately, It: Chapter Two just feels a little too bombastic and silly to truly unnerve.
Weirdly lost in this funhouse reprisal is Pennywise himself, who shares precious little time with the adult losers until the climax, a decision that only becomes more baffling when SkarsgŚrd completely owns every scene he appears in. An episode where he lures a young girl beneath some bleachers is exactly the sort of unsettling stuff I wanted to see more of in the film. It relies solely on the uncomfortable image of Pennywise's moon-face emerging from an inky darkness before the disarming lilt in his voice wears down his preyís defenses. Likewise, a later scene in a literal funhouse (as if we didnít know what sort of thing Muschietti was going for here) provides a stark reminder of how genuinely predatory Pennywise is. In a film thatís otherwise all too eager to deliver too much of a good thing with its overcooked images, itís strange that we donít see more of Kingís killer clown, who often feels at a distance from the actual film. For example, he never actually appears on-screen with the adult Henry Bowers (Teach Grant), even though he once again taps him to kill off the Losers after escaping a mental hospital.
That particular subplot is also emblematic of how Chapter Two sometimes feels like a skim reading of the novel. Even at 169 minutes, the film often feels too brisk as it reduces entire characters like Bowers (who is nothing more than an a glowering boogeyman) to plot devices. This is to be expected, I suppose: no adaptation is going to be perfect, much less one that only has two films to work with. Itís sometimes disappointing nonetheless because thereís so much to like about both movies, including Chapter Two. I know it sounds like Iíve been overwhelmingly negative about this follow-up, but it remains compulsively watchable throughout. If someone were to dismiss a lot of my issues as fanboy nitpicks that plague most adaptations, Iím not sure Iíd even argue too much to the contrary. Itís true: It is a book that I have read several times, and one that I consider among my all-time favorites, so itís probably true that Iím being a little bit too hard on this take.
Besides, I certainly canít knock its ambition: while I find the approach of the second entry to be misguided in some cases, itís clear that Muschietti and company do have a fondness for the source material and even do their best to capture how big, weird, and fantastical Kingís novel is. Characters actually utter phrases like ďThe Ritual of ChudĒ and ďthe DeadlightsĒ in an effort to capture the unfathomable, cosmic origins of It; of course, the script stops fall short of giving It an internal monologue where he ruminates on his hatred for ďThe Turtle,Ē his godly nemesis that has existed since the universeís inception, but I suppose some concessions must be made. (Besides, there are more than a few nods to turtles strewn throughout both movies, and I choose to believe that, yes, the spirit of Maturin is working through the Losers and thereís nothing you can do to change my head-cannon.)
Chapter Two also manages to land some poignant emotional blows thanks to some terrific performances from all involved. Kingís reputation of course puts his Master of Horror status at the forefront, but his work also often sports a gentle, moving humanity, and It is no exception. Muschiettiís films sometimes whiff on the horror elements, but they absolutely nail Kingís heart-on-his-sleeve sentimentality. When Chapter Two leans on these beats, it soars; in a perhaps surprising turn of events, most of these moments involve Bill Hader, whose motormouthed Richie emerges as the heart and soul of the film. His relationship with Eddie (James Ransone) is a crucial lynchpin linking both chapters into a cohesive whole, and these two actors do a lot of the legwork in giving the final confrontation with Pennywise some much-needed emotional stakes. Simply put, the rapport between Hader and Ransone has been engineered to break your heart, and I love how Hader especially cuts through Richieís glib exterior during the filmís rare quiet moments (his recollection of Stanís Bar Mitzvah is proof that these It films really work when they absolutely need to).
Like so much of Chapter Two, though, that final confrontation nags at the brain. Sure, it needs to feel like an epic finale, but Iím not quite sure it requires a big, weightless, relentless CGI display that turns this into a quippy, whiz-bang spectacle that you might see in any given summer blockbuster. At times, the finale threatens to unmoor the proceedings from those emotional stakes with unneeded jokes that mistake forced humor for levity. Muschietti does rebound nicely enough with a tender coda that captures the intimacy of the novel, all while sacrificing the apocalyptic vibe of it. Anyone hoping to see the legendary town flood that symbolically purifies Derry will be left disappointed; anyone whoís unaware that itís missing in the first place will once again chalk this criticism up to more nitpicking, which might, again be fair.
The same can be said of the other omissions that left me reeling, such as the subplot where Beverlyís psychotic, abusive husband (Will Beinbrink) tracks her to Derry. Likewise, we only glimpse Billís wife Audra (Jess Weixler) during an early scene and never again, which leaves his discovery of his childhood bike without the expected payoff. Obviously, this is another case of streamlining an unwieldy text, but these two particular subplots add that crucial weight of consequences and responsibility to the adult portions of the book that the movie is seemingly trying to sprint away from.
But, again, I get it: to truly, faithfully adapt It and retain all the crucial stuff (like the deep, exhaustive lore surrounding Derry that got quick shout-outs in the first film), youíd need a different format altogether, like a premium cable series that could stretch on for several seasons. In the interest of not pining for something that simply doesnít exist, Iíll simply tip my cap to what Muschietti and crew did pull off, especially since WB didnít exactly break the bank for the first film since it apparently had no idea this was going to be such a hit. For what it is, this It duology is largely successful; back in 2017, I kind of punted on the first film by insisting Iíd need to see if Muschietti stuck the landing and consider the effort as a whole.
Now that itís possible, I feel confident in considering this to be one of the more respectable efforts at adapting Kingís work. When these movies sing, they really sing with moments of sublime terror and heartwarming humanity, all while trying to appease those of us who grew up compulsively reading the authorís work (this one even works in one of the best King cameos ever, one that completely justifies the otherwise gratuitous scene where Bill stumbles upon Silver). Granted, thereís a lot of back-and-forth like that, especially with Chapter Two, a film that hits and misses as it takes its big, ambitious swing. I canít help but admire such ambition, even if I wish the final product felt a little more substantial.
Itís true that I would easily watch Muschiettiís longer supercut of It because, again, these films are easy to watch. In fact, the second entry might be too easy to watch: if the first film was a funhouse ride, then this one should have been the sobering return to a childhood haunt, where you uncover the unseemly, sketchy elements that you never quite grasped when you were younger. Instead, Muschietti is content to simply content to hastily shuffle you back aboard with the hopes that the old thrills are still potent enough to distract you. They mostly are, but you still canít help but want to peek beyond the cheap exteriors in search of something more legitimately horrifying.
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