Stephen King’s works will speak to one moviegoer differently than another. One’s level of enjoyment toward the exceedingly inevitable IT: Chapter Two, opening the same weekend as its prior A-side two years ago, may vary solely based on how committed one could be to the famed writer’s passion in storytelling. Per the usual King hallmarks, directorial approach often surpasses literary vision, and not always in a flattering light. This second half, I knew right off the bat would come with a better appreciation, had I bothered to read the dang-blasted book. Otherwise, and especially without the buildup of the imperfect-yet-pleasing Chapter One, it’s a little messier, a bit more extensive, and were it not for the third act purposefully tying everything together with every ounce of overwhelming emotion imaginable, a wasteful drudge.
Chapter Two picks up the rampant misadventures of Derry, Maine’s infamous Loser’s Club, approximately 27 years into the future, the events of their initial encounter to eliminate the nefarious Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård) bonding them as friends. Everyone’s grown up exponentially, and not always for better. For starters, the clown is apparently still alive, and the group had grown very distant in the time since, which easily means the dynamics have changed. As we go along, the answer is perhaps yes and no. Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) has stayed behind in Derry, monitoring any suspicious activity the way a conspiracy theorist would prepare a daily report. After so long without the presence of an attack, suddenly there is one. Simply put, the clown is alive, and the club must fulfill their promise to each other: to stay friends and fight back against their common enemy if needed again. Easier said than done.
Each of them have gone on their own separate paths in adulthood, the variances a tad extreme. Bill (James McAvoy) is now a regarded mystery novelist married to a sci-fi starlet, and Beverly (Jessica Chastain) a Chicagoan with an eye for fashion and a few unhealed childhood scars. Ben (Jay Ryan), once the chubby one, now a fit, strapping architectural planner; hypochondriac Eddie (James Ransone), changed the least in the role of a Manhattan risk assessor, and Stanley (Andy Bean), a steady accountant in the ATL. Lastly, there’s the insecure Richie (Bill Hader), now a stand-up comedian whose mouth could still get him in trouble if not kept in line.
Their reunion is welcome, somewhat starting wholesome with dinner at a Chinese restaurant, that hops off the path of sanity the moment a hive of CGI spiders burst out of a bowl of fortune cookies. The journey they embark on soon after, to protect the current kids of Derry from experiencing the same fate, it does get complicated, convoluted and writhe with flashbacks aplenty. Perhaps to the point where everyone in the audience will be exhausted by the time we reach the moment most fans will have paid to see: that all-pivotal final showdown between the Losers and the dread, demonic clown.
Even if one is a hardcore King fan, it may be a bit of a double take for them as well, considering much of the backstory that had occurred in between major events was left in the dust, and opening several plot holes that are ultimately unresolved. Writer-director duo Andy Muschietti and Gary Dauberman (at this point a bankable hero to WB execs) attack this second half of King’s nearly 1100 page diatribe of friendship triumphing over evil the same way they had handled the first, with a contrived passion for doing right by King’s character-driven mythology. It’s quite the quandary they are working through. Keep the fandom pleased by being as loyal as possible, while slowly building up momentum for the third act brawl. And yet, the pair fail on the latter, inadvertently tapping the brakes more than once. Less certainly is more, and fewer flashbacks could’ve helped keep one’s engagement flexible. But then we’d lose some of what King had been aiming for in his brick of a book. It’s perhaps the most delicate high wire act a horror director may ever face, and regrettably that’s where Chapter II fumbles before eventually regaining its balance. And I stress the word “eventually”, like not until near the end.
Thankfully Muschietti, whom the Warner brass made a fair choice entrusting with this adaptation, entails his approach with many little treats that may or may not justify the heavy time commitment. Best among them is Hader, the SNL alum who’s made a graceful transition into straight dramatic work, if his HBO series Barry is enough of a positive indicator. Taking on grown-up Richie, he unhesitantly inherits the unfiltered insecurity of Finn Wolfhard’s youthful counterpart but is no less scared to pull a magical one-liner out of his invisible hat and making comic relief look dignified without it being played explicitly for laughs. If I was to take nothing else away from the experience of this film apart from Hader’s exemplary, enriching performance, that may be alright. McAvoy and Chastain are certainly no slouches, either, strengthening their respective character arcs. Bill still bears resent toward himself for the passing of little bro Georgie, while Beverly has perpetuated a cycle of systemic abuse, resulting in a poor choice of romantic partners over time.
The club’s full laundry list of repressed memories, youthful fears, hidden secrets, and oddball fantasia, Muschietti leaves nothing to chance, not missing a step. Of course, that contributes to most of the film’s scare factor, exposing each character’s unique concerns which Pennywise doles out like the highest-quality Halloween candy, Skarsgård’s manifestation of the lowly harlequin remaining very on-point. A murder-hungry CGI Paul Bunyan statue may be the one iconic visual to derive from this series of scares. And in a film that is surprisingly sparse on helpless murders, that card only pulled to illustrate whatever vague point Andy is focused on, it is a sight any one of us will impatiently long for. If only that could be said about school bully Henry (Teach Grant) returning to add an extra level of tension as a mental ward escapee turned clown’s assistant in mischief. As pivotal as he was before, he contributes nothing that couldn’t have been accomplished by Skarsgård on his own.
But it’s the level of backstory used to counteract maybe two real hours of relevant action that decisively handicaps this piece of horror. The way it was told, one would imagine a limited-run TV series could do the job more effectively, the same way a three-course meal at a fancy restaurant could. It’s lean in spots but loaded with gristle at the edges. It is neither perfect, nor entirely memorable. And yet, you don’t want to look away as that special friendship is refreshed. It works best when the losers are interacting in those moments of downtime, freeform conversation flowing like honey. Surely, more of that and a little less of the weaker flashback elements which would’ve been better served in the first film to serve as Easter eggs being planted in real-time, that would’ve been a significant improvement.
Regardless, you cannot overlook Muschietti’s loyalty to the original novel, determined to finish the story with a grandiose scope. And much like our heroes, try to reconnect the dots, and move forward, instead of just forgetting the past and living like it never happened. Yes, that ideal is challenged asking more background questions than there are answers, something only a miniature franchise expansion could’ve resolved. But where IT: Chapter Two soars most is in its method to encapsulate what is lost after childhood, and what can be regained in order to live our lives more fulfilling in the present. Still very messy, not as gratuitously violent as genre fans would want, but on the matter of achieving mature closure, it still floats. Just barely. (C+)
IT: Chapter Two is in area theaters this weekend; rated R for disturbingly violent content and bloody images throughout, pervasive language, and some crude sexual material; 169 minutes.