Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård, Teach Grant, Jaeden Martell, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Wyatt Oleff
Director: Andy Muschietti
Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Why anyone would attempt an adaptation of Stephen King’s 1987 classic novel It (aside from a long-form streaming miniseries) is beyond this reviewer, and yet, director Andy Muschietti has taken it upon himself to do just that. Even the 1990 miniseries felt truncated at 3 hours, as King’s sprawling narrative encompassed everything from childhood trauma, small town mythology, to that titular clown terrorizing the inhabitants of Derry, Maine. 2017’s revamped It was a crowd-pleaser and box office phenomenon, riding on the coattails of Stranger Things and other 80s ephemera, and as such, felt mostly like fan-service. Another problem was how the film strained to tap into the richer thematic material inherent in King’s novel, as it could barely handle operating as a mainstream horror movie.
With It: Chapter 2, something fascinating has occurred in that it takes all the hokey elements from the first installment and blows them up to the point where the end result is nothing short of epic schlock, and that’s a good thing. Taking place 27 years after the first entry, It: Chapter 2 nods towards mental illness, childhood damage, and omnipresent guilt, but doesn’t really have the time to invest in such themes; racing through its nearly 3 hour running time at a fever pitch. Still, there’s a playfulness here which gives everything an almost late 80’s Tim Burton vibe; cemented by the returning Bill Skarsgaard as Pennywise, whose take on the iconic character is like a ghoulish version of Ren & Stimpy on a Tales from the Crypt bender. Meanwhile, the human characters have all been given simplistic traits defining them in the most basic ways, but since there are so many plot threads and the film has to hit all of them with reverence, the lack of psychological insight isn’t really a problem.
There’s the adult Bill (James McAvoy), still dealing with guilt over the death of his younger brother at the hands of Pennywise, while Bev (Jessica Chastain) is involved in an abusive relationship, which echoes the cycle of abuse from her father. Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) is the one person who remained in Derry his whole life, obsessively pouring over the town’s history in hopes of unlocking the secret to vanquishing the killer clown for good. Riche (Bill Hader) is a stand-up comedian masking his homosexuality, Eddie (James Ransome) has gone from a neurotic momma’s boy to a neurotic man-child, and then there’s Ben (Jay Ryan), who still feels like a lonely fat kid even as he’s now flashing chiseled abs and an unfortunate goatee.
The tale of these self-proclaimed “losers” forced to return to their hometown does contain possibilities for nuanced character drama, but Muschietti is more interested in trotting out a Grand Guignol hall of mirrors horror extravaganza. Nothing here is really scary (the heavy use of CG diminishes the creepy factor in most scenes), but the idea of these characters confronting their inevitable deaths (whether at the hands of Pennywise or simply through natural causes) is the film’s main frightening obsession. As the characters grow older and forget their pasts, the reality of death creeps in, even taking one of them in the process, as the adult Stan (played by Andy Bean) kills himself instead of returning to Derry and unleashing all those horrific recollections.
Throughout, Muschetti winks at Hollywood co-opting passion projects. Bill visits a studio set where one of his novels is being made into a movie, and has a humorous encounter with Peter Bogdanovich as a put-upon filmmaker. King himself also shows up as an antiques store owner poking fun at his own penchant for writing bad endings (a complaint widely lobbied at It). All of this will play either as self-effacing or pandering, depending on one’s position on such things. Of course, the narrative through-line must eventually involve the losers combating Pennywise in one final duel. More than simply an otherworldly visitor wrecking havoc, the evil clown is the embodiment of small town bigotry, hate, and violence; foregrounded by a brutal homophobic murder during the film’s opening moments.
The best thing that can be said about It: Chapter 2 is that it realizes it can never reach the scope or depth of the source material. Instead, Muschetti and company have concocted a haunted house horror romp which plays like Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners with a dash of Beetlejuice mania. It’s ultimately a film which acknowledges its corniness and embraces schlock as a badge of honor. That it aims for an emotional reaction by the end is something of a misstep (with only Hader bringing more than one dimension to a mostly wasted cast), but for the vast majority of its running time, It: Chapter 2 is about as subtle as a gigantic clown with spider legs, and that’s a very good thing indeed.