When Stephen King’s It first premiered to massive critical and commercial acclaim in 2017, I was one of the few fun-killers. Oh, I didn’t hate the film by any means. I just viewed it as slightly-above average, and nowhere near $700 million worthy. However, after seeing It: Chapter Two, I have begun to change my tune. Not that I’ve begun to turn around on the flaws with the first film; they are still there in full force. It’s just that I have now seen the uphill battle the directors and producers faced in creating the original, excising the unnecessary fat from the cinematic adaptation, and am now more appreciative of the film’s finer aspects. For It: Chapter Two, while improving in a few key areas over its predecessor, wholly whiffs on closing the It saga properly with a mediocre, confusing horror film meant to cheaply put butts in seats.
27 years ago, The Losers’ Club defeated Pennywise The Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård) and promised to defend Derry if It ever returned. Now, the gang has scattered to the winds, having forgotten all about their childhood friends and their activities. Bill (James McAvoy, formerly Jaeden Martell) is a successful author married to a popular actress. Eddie (James Ransone, formerly Jack Dylan Grazer) is a talented risk assessor living in New York. Stanley (Andy Bean, formerly Wyatt Oleff) runs a large accounting firm in Atlanta. Mike (Isaiah Mustafa, formerly Chosen Jacobs) has remained behind in Derry, Maine to monitor the situation. Richie (Bill Hader, formerly Richie Tozier) has become a famous stand-up comedian in L.A. And Ben (Jay Ryan, now Jeremy Ray Taylor) is a handsome architect still pining for the love of his life, fellow member Bev (Jessica Chastain, formerly Sophia Lillis), who married an abusive fashion designer. However, when kids in Derry start disappearing again, and Mike starts noticing red balloons popping up all over town, the gang is forced to return to their past, ready to confront their childhood fears, traumas, and insecurities in one last bid to defeat It once and for all.
The worst part of It: Chapter Two is that it just chooses to double down on all the things that held the first one back from greatness, in the worst possible ways. This of course refers to the films’ obsession with excessive, terrible CGI, but it’s also a problem that goes beyond all that. The film doubles down on its forced love triangle, only now it’s as formulaic as its jump scares – Bill and Bev will flirt, then it will cut to Ben looking sad, and all the while you just roll your eyes wondering why you care. And it constantly attempts to draw you in with references to other Stephen King adaptations, especially The Shining. And while some are somewhat interesting, such as a recreation of the elevator scene with sewer water, others are incredibly forced, including Pennywise sticking his head through a crack and yelling, “Here’s Johnny!” – a reference that could not and should not make sense in this universe. But beyond the laziness of these aspects, one of the most irritating aspects of the film is the terrible screenplay. While the original thrived on the quick-witted dialogue of the children, particularly Richie, here the dialogue ranges from the outdated to the painfully obtuse. Some of the dialogue is lifted straight from the book, which would have been great if it hadn’t been updated to the 80s and present day. Jokes about Meg Ryan don’t land in 2019, and there’s no way late 70s-born Bill would be quoting The Lone Ranger. And other times, the comments from the bullies, or descriptions of things that are happening, are just ridiculously uncomfortable and idiotic. The film opens with an unbearable voiceover (Oh God) that blatantly declares, “Sometimes, we are what we wish we could forget.” Thanks for laying out the theme of the movie in the opening narration, movie. While the film does improve after thirty of the sh*ttiest minutes in modern cinema, it can only do so much. Flashbacks that make no sense in the timeline and add nothing to the story, an impossibly long third act, and an ending stolen directly from Stand By Me (great, another forced King reference) all factor into a slog of a production.
But perhaps what I hated the most about the film is the way it tackles its message. Throughout the film, It brings up a variety of major social issues that are handled in, how shall I put this…less than ideal manners. The film opens on a scene of gay-bashing, a moment that at the time may feel important to the story, if not overwhelmingly excessive. Later, there is a moment of small town police brutality (directed not at a black man, but at a very-guilty teenage boy) that begins to raise red flags in the viewer’s mind. You see, It: Chapter Two WANTS to deal with serious subject matter, but it also wants to do so in the laziest, dumbest ways possible. This is evidently clear in Bev’s character, whose journey of abuse (parental and spousal) is portrayed in the most heavy-handed ways possible. For most of the film, you’ll be left wondering why these details feel so unnecessary or confusing; and unless you’ve read the book, you won’t have an answer. But here it is, for those of you behind on King’s oeuvre: the film has excised Pennywise’s control over the adults of Derry. In the novel, the adults of the small Maine town had made a pact with Pennywise, offering him their children in exchange for money, power, and safety. It’s a metaphor for the blindness of adults to real-world issues and the way they leave children to fend for themselves. Here, these issues are portrayed as nothing more than small town drama. Not only does excising this necessary plot point hurt the film, it also makes the previous film’s themes weaker. It: Chapter One notoriously featured insanely obtuse and abusive authority figures who left our heroes to die time and time again. At the time, it didn’t make sense, but book readers knew that this was all a part of the town’s pact with Pennywise. By excising this plot point, it leaves the overall message in both films as simple as, “Adults are dumb.” Which is aggravatingly simplistic. What’s more, it leaves moments from the novel that might seem creepy or interesting as weird and perplexing. Mr. Keene, the pharmacist, is still just as creepy as ever, molesting Eddie’s face when he comes for his inhaler. But while the original film portrayed him as lecherous, and the novel portrays him as a servant of It, this portrayal inherently makes no sense in the film’s narrative. Because the film cut this detail, the film’s moral is left unfinished. And while some details still hold weight – Bill’s guilt over his dead brother, like the first film, is still the best part – changing the message to “good friends outweigh bad memories” is the Hallmark answer to life’s real issues.
Furthermore, while it is possible that the film excised the evil adult angle due to general ridiculousness, that doesn’t explain why it chooses to keep the other insanely dumb whim of the writers – King included. Whether based on King’s novel or not, the film indulges each and every impulse it possesses, assuming everything they do will be scary and in no way appearing dumb. The Ritual of Chüd undergoes a rewrite in order to appear less ridiculous, but now involves an Endgame-esque journey through the previous film – a decision that not only doesn’t work, but feels unearned when compared to the blockbuster behemoth. Basically, our protagonists have to find what happened to them between the first and second movie. Why? Well, because It has the ability to wipe their memories the minute they leave town. It all makes about as much sense as the poorly written and edited iowaska scene that really should have ended up on the cutting room floor. It’s amazing they decided to excise the talking turtle at all, given how silly they make the rest of the film. Meanwhile, some of the “creepy” Pennywise moments that barely work in the book are presented here without question. There’s a Giant CGI Paul Bunyan made of terrible digital effects that is pretty much as idiotic as it sounds. My favorite scene involves insane bully Henry Bowers breaking out of the loony bin in a hot rod driven by his zombie best friend. And in case you were wondering: yes, Pennywise still transforms into Spider Pennywise at the end, and it still doesn’t work. For good measure, I’d also like to point out that while it technically isn’t something from King’s novel, the Losers’ Club in this film ultimately defeats Pennywise through the power of bullying. No, that’s not a mistype, and no, I’m not going to spoil the movie by explaining myself. I’d only give myself an aneurysm doing so anyway. It: Chapter Two cannot tell the difference between scary and silly, and while that can be a useful trait for some directors (Adam Wingard, Jordan Peele), it is not one of Andy Muschietti’s.
Of course, when it comes to It, your enjoyment really will live and die on the relationship between The Losers’ Club. And with a new cast coming in, how does this relationship fare? The answer is “sorta mixed.” One of the strongest aspects of the first It was the chemistry between the young cast. Whether it’s because they’re seven of the strongest actors in the business right now or because they are young and actually managed to forge true friendships, they’re interactions felt real and unfakeable. Unfortunately, this is in stark contrast with the adult cast, who either hoped their acting talents were stronger than they were or because they never interacted prior to filming (both could be possible). Granted, the adults are handicapped by the fact their real-world issues are downright boring. We have watched these children battle abusive parents, dead siblings and a literal killer alien clown, and now we are supposed to care that…they’ve got boring jobs? That they’re billion dollar careers are based on only-ok products? Only Bev has a realistic problem to deal with (an abusive husband), and even that feels dragged off the set of a Lifetime movie. And lest you start yearning for the presence of the child actors, the film instantly quashes this by digitally de-aging the children well into the uncanny valley. Jaeden Martell and Jeremy Ray Taylor’s faces become unnaturally smooth like Tom Hanks in The Polar Express.
However, with that being said, there’s still a lot I like about the relationship between our beloved Losers. One of the film’s strongest attributes is the way it portrays adults struggling with growing up, and trying to reclaim the innocence the world (and an evil clown) has taken from them. The character of Mike talks openly about how he’d desired to escape the backwards town that birthed and tormented him, only to be trapped in Derry for three decades more. The characters fall back into old habits, both good and bad, including vomiting, stuttering, and panicking. There’s a fantastic scene of them catching up at a Chinese restaurant, falling back into old habits, arguments, jokes, and more. And there’s a fantastic shot where a young Eddie and adult Eddie are overlapped as they walk up to the phramacist’s counter. There are some fantastic belly laughs throughout, sometimes involving Richie, sometimes not. One of my favorites involves a recurring joke about how Bill is an author who can’t write endings (an in-joke about Stephen King?) that culminates in a terrified Richie declaring, “Let’s get out of here before things end worse than one of Bill’s books!” Speaking of Bill, one of my favorite shots of the film is a slow-mo sequence of adult Bill hopping on his old bike and slowly getting back in the swing of things, transporting him back to a time when he was young and free – when it was just him and a girl, free of clowns, deadlines, and guilt. It’s the definition of film being a visual medium. And I do want to give the film credit – it takes a ballsy, redefining stance on one of the film and novel’s most beloved characters, and it feels organic, interesting, and non-pandering. Despite a lack of chemistry and clear missteps, it’s hard to dislike The Losers’ Club in any capacity.
And while much of the film is a step down from its predecessor, it does surpass it in one surprising way: the characterization of Pennywise. While much of the world was petrified by the creepy clown back in 2017, I was sidelined with laughter. Despite a petrifying fear of clowns, I found Skarsgård’s over-the-top performance uninteresting and unscary, centered on the obvious formula “build-up, fake-out, jump scare, bad CGI.” While that formula remains here, and the film still utilizes that incredibly dumb shaky-cam effect whenever Pennywise attacks, Muschietti has done a much better job building tension and utilizing the actor’s frightening face. One of the reasons Pennywise is more effective this time around is because the film actually addresses that they made Pennywise too creepy. Pennywise’s clown disguise was always intended as a lure, a way to trick children into a false sense of security so he could terrify and eat them. In the previous film, Pennywise was so creepy from the get-go, no child would fall for his schemes. This is addressed in an early scene where Pennywise attempts to ensnare a young girl named Vicky at a baseball game. Despite using the same tricks he used on Georgie back in 1989, Vicky immediately points out “You’re super creepy” and tries to leave. By addressing this screw-up, the film forces Pennywise to change tactics, and use new, smarter, scarier tricks to lure his prey in. The result adds an extra layer of “ick” (in the right ways) when you see comparisons between his two child murders to the tricks used by infamous, haunting molesters that flooded papers in the eighties and nineties. Meanwhile, after an entire film of boring, uninspired jump scares, it’s nice to see Pennywise (and the film) relying on tension and dramatic irony to elicit terror. The Mrs. Kersh (Joan Gregson) sequence may be ruined by bad CGI for the bulk of its fifteen-minute duration, but up until that point, it is an uncomfortable, well-built sequence of tension and terror. A sequence of a balloon-laden Pennywise taunting poor Richie is top-notch throughout, and there are few moments from the last decade of horror as perfectly executed as the Hall of Mirrors sequence here. Even the humor is better now – instead of ridiculously over-the-top hoedowns, It now has a gross-out moment set to “Angel of the Morning” that seems both out of place and entirely necessary. There’s a lot that It: Chapter Two gets wrong, so I’m glad they managed to get such a fundamental part of their story so right.
Outside of Skarsgård’s terrific, terrifying performance, most of the acting from the rest of the cast is pretty solid. It feels like beating a dead horse at this point, but I can’t get over how great Bill Hader is in this film as Richie. Much as Wolfhard stole the show the first time around as the motormouthed tween, Hader brings layers of depth and emotion to his portrayal. Combining the sarcasm that made him a star on Saturday Night Live, the brokenness of his performance on Barry, and some of the layers of his work in The Skeleton Twins, Hader gives a funny, terrified performance that stands tall with the best of the genre. Also great is James Ransone as hypochondriac Eddie, who is clearly the only logical choice for grown-up Jack Dylan Grazer not named Adam Brody. He nails Grazer’s fast-talking neuroticism and well-timed reaction shots to a T. Mustafa and Bean are, truthfully, wasted as Mike and Stanley, although they both have their moments to shine and elevate the material, while McAvoy and Chastain are both about as great as you’d expect the actors to be – both as older versions of their characters (spot-on) and as individual performances. The only weak link among the adults is Jay Ryan, who’s pretty much there for the joke of “Ben is hot now.” It’s not that Ryan is bad, per se. It’s just that he lacks any of the charm and charisma that made Taylor one of the best parts of the first film. The child actors are, regrettably, in this film much less than audiences were led to believe, but their presence is sorely needed whenever they appear. And honestly, the only casting decision that truly made me angry is that of the phenomenal Jess Weixler as Bill’s wife Audra, who finds her role significantly downplayed, and ultimately wasted. The most interesting moment of Weixler’s performance is the introduction of a random Peter Bogdanovich cameo, which ranks with a certain novelist as one of the film’s weirdest cameos.
It: Chapter Two is a slog of a film. At just shy of three hours, it demonstrates the worst instincts of directors and producers who rush through sequels without proper analysis of what worked, instead just duplicating the first one warts and all. I don’t want to claim that Chapter Two is a terrible film – I really did laugh several times, enjoy the work Hader put into his performance, and feel genuine thrills missing from It: Chapter One. But overall, this was just a mess. It demonstrates both the genius and the insanity of its creator in the worst possible ways, and arguing that some stories should just remain on the page. At the end of the day, It: Chapter Two just doesn’t float.