Sorry to pop your balloon, but “It Chapter Two” is a mess. The second chapter in the clown saga feels as long as Stephen Kings’ 1,138 page novel (it’s nearly 3 hours!), and twice as bleak. It’s astounding that Andres Muschietti could have made such a downer from such a long beloved source of delight. Instead of a fantasy about the process of maturing, the new one fantasizes about box office numbers. The story is the same–the kids grow up to face Pennywise again, only to come face to face with their own self doubts; defeat your inner fears and you defeat IT. But what it’s really about is throwing a bunch of effects at the screen to sell tickets. Gone are the days when the characters were most important. Instead of nature vs nurture, “It’s” become nature vs torture.
Still, this is sure to make a killing at the box office. Fans who are curious to see what’s in store for the Losers Club will show out in droves. Expecting a certain brand of scares, millions went in to the first one hungry and left happy (like I-Hop’s slogan). Now, we’re 27 years into the future and the youngsters are all grown up. Everyone’s moved out of the little town of Derry, but they haven’t moved on. James McCavoy, an arguably more impressive shapeshifter than Pennywise, plays the Loser Clubs’ leader, Bill. He’s a big shot screenwriter who is continually told his endings suck–a playful dig at the criticism of King’s novel.
There’s also Jessica Chastain’s Beverly, the showroom wife of an abusive husband. Jay Ryan’s Ben, the fat kid turned showstopper. James Ransone’s Eddie, a risk analyst. Chosen Jacob’s Mike, the chronicler of past events. And last but not least, a scene stealing Bill Hader as Richie; a comedian who still makes “your mom” jokes after all these years. All of these actors masterfully capture the mannerisms of the child actors before them. But, like the rest of the film, they don’t bring anything new to the table.
Walking into “It Chapter Two” is like walking into a cliche hall of mirrors. Everywhere you look is something you have seen before, and probably done better. That goes for the opening scene in which Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) bites into a mans’ chest as if it were a slice of watermelon. Turning to the camera, he gives us a Heath Ledger smile, his lips drooling like a panting puppy, as a bouquet of balloons take to the sky. This means two things: 1) the gangs getting back together!; 2) Ronald McDonald on crack must be stopped!
To say the gang gets back together implies more integrity to the writing than is actually at hand. With a killer clown on the loose, you would think that the Losers Club wouldn’t waste time. If only. Instead, the preposterously prolonged run time gives us two hours to waste on watching the gang split up, and explore what really scares them. That means opening up doors to childhood traumas. That also means carnival scares that aren’t all that scary. It’s as if Muschietti thought that the clown wasn’t terrifying enough–spoiler alert, he is– and that toothless zombies, bullies and naked grandmas would do the trick. Spoiler alert, they don’t.
When Bill tries to describe his feelings toward Pennywise, he struggles by saying “F-Fa-Fa-Fa.” Mike finishes his sentence abruptly with “fear.” The whole film struggles in the fear department; it’s not just Bill. The screenwriters clearly paid attention to the themes of King’s novel, juggling the power of friendship, the way the past reflects the present and the way our imperfections make us human. But they didn’t pay attention when it comes suspense. Things morph into other things–Pennywise hatches spider legs and grows to the size of a theme park ride–as the speakers shook my screening room so violently that I thought there was an earthquake. Yet spectacle isn’t what scares us, atmosphere does.
When the film takes us back to 1989 to fill in the story line, it’s a reminder of what made the first one work. That Spielbergian atmosphere. Banking on a band of joke-cracking teens along the lines of “Stand By Me,” it was easy for us to stand by the characters. Their friendship made us care about the inevitable finale. The new group is rarely seen together, making the tone kinda depressing. For nearly three hours we watch bad things happen to good people. This time without their friends to back them up.
Even so, if this gives us more of SNL star Bill Hader in the future, it’s all worth it. “I’m just trying to bring some levity to this shit” he exclaims unironically. He’s the only piece of entertainment in a sequel that has ripped the heart and soul out of the first. Only the bleakness remains.