It, Chapter Two (2019) It, Chapter Two (2019) *½

     Back in 2017, I thought it was a good idea to divide It into two movies. For one thing, it would obviously be difficult to boil the novel’s thousand-plus pages down into a film of reasonable dimensions, even if films of reasonable dimensions weren’t currently a lost art in Hollywood. But beyond that, the book inherently lends itself to such treatment, since Stephen King wrote it to function as original story and sequel in one. King just interwove the 1950’s and 1980’s segments so that their plot arcs echoed and paralleled each other. No reason why the same sort of echoes and parallels couldn’t be built into two separately released movies, right? Hell, the two halves of the story might even benefit from the separation, insofar as the time lag between pictures could make it less immediately obvious what was being done on the structural side. And I still think that’s true, in theory. In practice, though, there’s an obstacle I hadn’t considered, which the present iteration of It fails to clear. Look closely at the book, and you’ll see that there’s really only one act’s worth of material in the present-day sections. Adaptors seeking to make a whole second film out of them would need to find some way to fill out the remaining time, and unfortunately the approach actually taken in It, Chapter Two makes nonsense of the entire “one book, two movies” premise. Rather than beef up the story of the adult Losers’ rematch with the thing that lurks beneath Derry, Maine, writer Gary Dauberman and director Andy Muschietti merely larded the sequel with flashbacks to past events not depicted in the 2017 It, which nevertheless tell us nothing we didn’t already know. And since It, Chapter Two wound up being almost three hours long, anyway, there was really nothing gained at all by splitting up the twin narratives.

     The film begins by reminding us that the Losers’ Club— Bill Denbrough, Beverly Marsh, Richie Tozier, Ben Hanscom, Mike Hanlon, Eddie Kaspbrack, and Stan Uris (Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Granger, and Wyatt Oleff, all returning from It, Chapter One, although Lieberher is calling himself “Jaeden Martell” these days)— followed up their battle with the sewer-dwelling monster that likes to manifest itself as Pennywise the clown (a similarly returning Bill Skarsgård) by swearing a blood-oath to do it all again if it should turn out that the thing is less dead than it appears. The mere existence of this movie should tell us that Pennywise is indeed alive (if perhaps less than well), and 28 years later, the monster-clown puts in an appearance at the scene of a grisly crime. The perpetrators are a band of hoodlums, the victims are a gay couple, and the crime itself is a savage beating which culminates in the more flamboyant of the recipients being tossed into the canal that runs through the center of town. That canal communicates with the sewers via the storm drains, and thus it is that Pennywise is in a position to finish what the queer-bashers started by devouring the unfortunate man. Unsurprisingly, the municipal police don’t exactly fall all over themselves in their rush to believe the survivor’s story about what he saw after his boyfriend hit the water.

     Meanwhile, most of the Losers have moved very far on with their lives. Bill (played as an adult by James McAvoy, from Split and The Pool) is now a successful author, currently busy in Hollywood adapting one of his books for a movie starring his wife (Jess Weixler, of Teeth). Richie (Bill Hader) is even more of a celebrity, a standup comic with his own live TV show. Ben (Jay Ryan) has lost the great masses of excess weight that were his most conspicuous feature as a child, and has become one of the country’s most highly regarded architects. Eddie (James Ransone, from Prom Night and Sinister) and Stan (Andy Bean, of Allegiant and Transformers: The Last Knight) are successful in a less exalted way, working very remunerative jobs in insurance and law respectively. Beverly (Jessica Chastain, of The Martian and Crimson Peak) and Mike (Isaiah Mustafa, from The Clinic and The Island) are the odd ones out in this litany of small-town kids making good, Bev because she wound up married to an abusive creep (Will Beinbrink) just like her dad, and Mike because he’s still back home in Derry, barely scraping by as the town librarian.

     There’s an element of conscious choice in Hanlon’s situation, however. After all, for the Losers’ oath to mean anything, someone had to stick around and keep an eye on things. The story of the gay-bashing that ran in the local papers may not have mentioned any vampire sewer-clowns, but enough odd details came through for Mike to recognize Pennywise’s handiwork nonetheless. Not wasting a moment, he makes a round of phone calls to all his old friends, telling them that they’re needed in Derry. Strangely, none of the other Losers can remember what Mike’s summons signifies, but every one of them reacts to it with overwhelming, primordial terror. Just the same, they all drop whatever they were doing, and book themselves the soonest possible flight to Derry from wherever they currently are. Or at any rate, all of them do except for Stan. Perhaps he recalls just a tad more than the others, because he cuts his own wrists in the bathtub rather than get back into the monster-hunting business.

     As befits his profession, Mike has been busy with research during the years since the Losers drifted apart. Among the leads he followed up was a myth belonging to the Shokopiwah Indians, which tells of a being from the stars that appears to humans in the guise of whatever they most fear. The shamanic prescription for dealing with this entity was something called the Ritual of Chud, and Mike’s hope is that by performing the rite, he and his old friends can send Pennywise packing once and for all. The proposed plan goes over poorly at first, as the out-of-town Losers start regaining their suppressed memories of that long-ago summer, but Pennywise makes Mike’s argument for him by attacking each of the wavering teammates in the manner best suited to frighten them into action instead of flight. Thus motivated, the Losers spend the next few days combing Derry for emotionally resonant objects to serve as the sacrificial tokens which the Ritual of Chud requires. One quick question, though: if the Shokopiwah medicine men really knew how to kill Pennywise, what are the chances that he would still be haunting Derry after all these centuries? The good news is that Dauberman and Muschietti meant for us to wonder about that. The bad news is that their answer will make the ridiculous ending to It, Chapter One look like a paragon of subtlety and good taste in comparison.

     Mind you, we can’t say they didn’t warn us. At least according to my recollection, the original publication of It in 1986 provided the impetus for the reading public to look back over the preceding twelve years of Stephen King’s career, and to recognize at last that he’d always had a spotty track record for bringing his novels to satisfying conclusions. That’s because the book ended on King’s most disappointing wet squib to date, combining a profoundly lame revelation of the monster’s true form with an incomprehensible meander through misapplied and misunderstood Eastern mysticism of the sort that only an ex-hippie with a roaring cocaine habit could devise. And this after making James Michener-like demands on the reader’s time and patience! Most filmmakers in their position would surely rather we not think about any of that, but Dauberman and Muschietti boldly remind us how much King’s original ending sucked at every turn. Not ten minutes into the film, they have the director of the movie Bill is supposed to be writing (Peter Bogdanovich!) insist that Denbrough scrap the finale of his screenplay (which presumably echoes that of the book from which it derives), and come up with something new and better. And for the next two hours, barely a character can mention Bill’s writing without griping about the shitty endings to his novels. The intention seems to have been to reassure the audience ahead of time that the filmmakers were aware of the issues with the original It, and had a plan to address them. That isn’t how it comes across, though. Instead, it sounds like we’re being cautioned not to get our hopes up. The funny part is that Dauberman really did try hard to fix King’s sorry ending. Pennywise doesn’t wind up being just a giant spider, there’s no vision quest to meet the turtle that carries the cosmos on its back, and best of all, so far as most viewers will be concerned, there’s no flashback to a tweenage gang-bang in the sewers beneath Derry. Unfortunately, a giant spider/clown centaur is at best a lateral move from a regular giant spider, especially when it talks like its mouth is full of potatoes and it won’t shut up. Similarly, although I quite like the idea that Pennywise’s true weakness is the flipside of his strength— that he’s limited as well as empowered by the belief of his would-be victims, and by the forms he derives from that belief— the execution here is severely lacking. A Nightmare on Elm Street did the same thing a lot better.

     Another respect in which the ending to It, Chapter Two falls flat concerns the film’s replacement for the aforementioned tweenage sewer gang-bang. Although belief is the source of Pennywise’s power, the key to its effective exercise is the isolation of the victim from any kind of outside emotional support. That’s because people who believe themselves to be alone, whether literally or figuratively, are easier prey to the fears and anxieties on which the creature apparently feeds. Consequently, the Losers’ recognition that they’re all in this together is the source of their strength. That comes into play in the final battle as each of the old friends plumbs the depths of his or her feelings for the others, sometimes with unexpected or at least previously unacknowledged results. So far, so good. Unfortunately, that makes It, Chapter Two critically dependent at the last upon the chemistry among the central performers, and they simply haven’t got any. Even the ones who are good in other respects (which is most of them, but especially Bill Hader and James Ransone) go limp when it comes to portraying the inseverable bonds joining these characters to one another. That’s in glaring contrast to the kids playing the juvenile Losers, all of whom I can readily imagine still getting together every year on the anniversary of the wrap party when they’re in their 70’s. From that perspective, it’s arguably a detriment to the film that the Chapter One players are in it at all, even though their scenes, taken in isolation, are the best parts of It, Chapter Two.



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